This story was updated on Wednesday, March 1 at 10:06 a.m.
Donald Trump is worried about violence by unauthorized immigrants. When he spoke before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, he invited three relatives of people that unauthorized immigrants had killed to attend as his guests.
In that speech, he called for the Department of Homeland Security to create an office focused on the victims of immigrant crime. And in a January 25 executive order, he instructed the Homeland Security Secretary to “make public a comprehensive list of criminal actions committed by aliens.”
On its face, this is odd. As far as researchers can tell, unauthorized immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than the American population at large. A 2007 National Bureau of Economic Research Paper by Wellesley College economist Kristin F. Butcher and Rutgers economist Anne Morrison Piehl found that “immigrants have much lower institutionalization (incarceration) rates than the native born.” (The discrepancy, they noted, could not be explained by the fact that the government deports some immigrant criminals, thus sparing them incarceration in the U.S.). A review of census data between 1980 and 2010 revealed that while non-citizens comprised 7 percent of the U.S. population, they comprised only 5 percent of those in America’s prisons.
Trump’s allies may believe that sneaking into the United States, or using a fake social security number to get a job, predisposes people to rob, rape, or kill. But the evidence does not bear this out. So if Trump’s goal is increasing public safety, publishing a list of crimes committed by unauthorized immigrants is irrational. It’s like publishing a list of crimes committed by people with red-hair.
If, however, Trump’s goal is stigmatizing a vulnerable class of people, then publicizing their crimes—and their crimes alone—makes sense. It’s been a tactic bigots have used more than a century.
Using crime to incite hatred has a long history in the United States. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a professor of history, race, and public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, notes that for at least a century after the end of slavery, northern newspapers generally identified African Americans accused of committing crimes as “negro” or “colored.” Southern newspapers generally referred to the offender as a “negro criminal” in bold—using the individual’s name and “the negro” interchangeably in the story. White criminals, by contrast, were not identified by race. (This tradition continues at Breitbart, which has a special category for “black crime.”)
Government crime statistics reflected ethnic and racial fears too. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, notes Muhammad, when native-born Americans were growing alarmed by mass immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, big city police forces broke down crime statistics by European nationality: Russian, German, Italian, etc. As nativist fears receded following the shutdown of such immigration, the FBI began lumping all European nationalities into the category “foreign born” beginning in 1930. By 1940, the European foreign born were subsumed into “white.”
In The Nazi Conscience, Duke historian Claudia Koonz notes that the Nazi newspaper Der Sturmer ran a feature called “Letter Box,” which published readers’ accounts of Jewish crimes. When the Nazis took power, the German state began doing something similar. Frustrated by the failure of most Germans to participate in a boycott of Jewish businesses in April 1933, Adolf Hitler’s government began publicizing Jewish crime statistics as a way of stoking anti-Semitism. In Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution, the historian Saul Friedlander notes that, until 1938, Hitler’s Ministry of Justice ordered prosecutors to forward every criminal indictment against a Jew so the ministry’s press office could publicize it.
Trump’s defenders might claim that what he’s doing differs from these prior examples. He’s publicizing the crimes of a legal group—illegal immigrants—not a religious, ethnic, or racial one. But in the United States in 2017, talking about “illegal immigrants” is like talking about “welfare mothers” or “crack dealers” in 1987. The racial implication is clear. Trump made it so himself in his announcement speech when he said that, “When Mexico sends its people…They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
Trump’s defenders might also argue that crime by unauthorized immigrants deserves special attention because, if the U.S. enforced its immigration laws, it wouldn’t occur at all. But even if it were possible to entirely prevent illegal entry into the United States—something prior presidents have failed to do despite massively militarizing America’s southern border—what’s the point of publicizing crimes that illegal immigrants commit, except to incite hatred them against them, and those Latinos legally in the United States who get mistaken for them?
Trump is scapegoating in the classic sense. He’s taking the sin of crime and associating it with one, already stigmatized, group, thus allowing native-born Americans to consider themselves pure. In Leviticus, the high priest takes a goat, “confess[es] over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites” and then sends it into the wilderness so it won’t contaminate them. When it comes to unauthorized immigrants, Trump is reenacting that ritual. Americans will soon learn just how harsh his legal and moral wilderness is.