Trump made liberal use of Lenny Skutniks, the invited guests who presidents use as foils for particular portions. Like the original Lenny Skutnik, a hero who rescued victims of a D.C. plane crash shortly before the 1982 State of the Union, many of Trump’s were heroes of disasters, whether natural or man-made: A Coast Guard petty officer who saved lives in Hurricane Harvey; a firefighter who combatted the California wildfires; a North Korean defector; the parents of a young American fatally sickened while in North Korean captivity; a soldier who fought ISIS in Raqqa; a Border Patrol agent targeted for killing by the gang MS-13; the parents of teens killed by the gang.
“These two precious girls were brutally murdered while walking together in their hometown,” Trump said. “Six members of the savage MS-13 gang have been charged with Kayla and Nisa’s murders.”
As is often the case, and as was the case in Trump’s pseudo-State of the Union in 2017 (newly inaugurated presidents don’t deliver true SOTUs), these moments were the most emotional. But many of them carried a dark undercurrent. This was particularly true of the MS-13 cases.
The toughness of Special Agent Celestino Martinez is indeed impressive, and it’s impossible not to grieve for the parents of the slain teens. It’s worth concentrating on the point that Trump sought to make with these examples, though. While there’s broad agreement that MS-13 is a dangerous and bloodthirsty gang, there are sharp divisions over the scale of the problem. The president has tended to exaggerate when discussing MS-13. Beyond that, many immigrant advocates objected to Trump positioning the gang alongside “Dreamers,” undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, a group for which Trump called Tuesday night for a path to citizenship.
“MS-13 is an example of some of the worst of criminal gang behavior,” Senator Kamala Harris, a California Democrat, said on MSNBC Tuesday night. “To equate that with Dreamers and DACA was completely irresponsible, and it was scapegoating, and it was fearmongering, and it was wrong.”
The New Yorker also recently reported how some Long Island teens feel trapped between deportation threat and the gang itself. It’s also unclear whether MS-13 is actually sending members across the border as unaccompanied minors, or whether the gang is recruiting immigrants once they’re in the U.S.
This was not the only case in which Trump reached for violent examples to bolster the case for his preferred changes to immigration policy. “In recent weeks, two terrorist attacks in New York were made possible by the visa lottery and chain migration,” he said. “In the age of terrorism, these programs present risks we can just no longer afford.” Those examples, critics were quick to point out, were not typical—most such attacks are carried about by native-born Americans who are radicalized.