SAN DIEGO -- The world of politics can be a zoo. So it was only a matter of time before the demagogue-in-chief labeled some illegal immigrants “animals.”
It happened last week during a White House meeting that had the vibe of a carnival freak show. President Donald Trump met with officials from California who, judging from their remarks, are itching to put on junior G-men badges and play immigration agent.
You would think that people who want to get mileage out of SB 54, the so-called sanctuary-state law, might have read the darned thing. If they had, they would know that, in the Golden State, the concept of “sanctuary” isn’t worth a plugged nickel.
Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims complained: “There could be an MS-13 member I know about -- if they don’t reach a certain threshold, I cannot tell ICE about it.” Trump responded: “We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in -- and we’re stopping a lot of them -- but we’re taking people out of the country. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals.”
The sheriff doth protest too much. An earlier version of SB-54 -- which went much further in limiting cooperation between local law enforcement officials and federal immigration agents -- was threatened with a veto by California Gov. Jerry Brown. It was a cynical play. The Democrat -- who has been in elective office on-and-off since 1970 and has politics in his veins -- wanted to keep his party from being branded “pro-illegal immigration” and “anti-law and order.”
Changes were made, and a watered-down bill was signed into law by Brown. Under the current version, Immigration and Customs Enforcement still has plenty of access to county jails, and it can still get a heads-up from the local sheriff’s office when an illegal immigrant is released from custody -- if that person has committed certain serious crimes, or if ICE has a warrant with the person’s name on it.
That’s what Mims calls a “certain threshold.”
But I don’t see the problem. According to Trump, and most of the hangers-on at his White House meeting, every member of MS-13 -- a gang that was created in Los Angeles, exported to El Salvador and now seems to be making its way back -- is a mixture of “El Chapo” Guzman, Al Capone, and the indestructible villain Thanos from “Infinity War.” With the “bad hombres” of MS-13, meeting the threshold should be easy.
The bigger problem is what Trump said. Americans have a foul history of comparing immigrants -- from Germany, Ireland, China, Italy, Mexico and El Salvador -- to animals. So we should not brush off those comments so easily.
There is a backstory here. Just in the last 10 years, Republicans have repeatedly tapped into their “animal” instincts.
-- Dr. Pat Bertroche, a candidate for Congress from Iowa, noted that he can microchip his dog and asked: “Why can’t I microchip an illegal?”
-- Tennessee state Rep. Curry Todd insisted that illegal immigrants come to this country and multiply “like rats.”
-- Rep. Steve King of Iowa wanted an electrified fence on the U.S.-Mexico border because it works “with livestock.”
Trump’s defenders made excuses for him, just as they did when he labeled Mexican immigrants drug traffickers and rapists.
I have to wonder: Why does someone who bills himself as a great communicator always need clarification when he talks about immigrants?
Besides, while Trump did mention MS-13 in doubling down the next day, he did not refer to the gang in his initial remarks at the White House. And it’s not the job of journalists to read his mind and try to figure out what he meant, only to report what he said.
That also applied to Hillary Clinton, who -- while pushing for a crime bill in the 1990s -- warned about a mob of violent young people who she called “super predators” who had to be brought “to heel.” Many African-Americans complained -- and still maintain to this day -- that Clinton was comparing young black men to animals. Clinton’s supporters claimed her words were taken out of context. There is a lot of that going around.
Meanwhile, Trump likes to portray himself as bravely standing up to political correctness.
Fine. Then he should stand up and admit that his antipathy toward immigrants is not limited to gang members. Such an admission would show maturity, honesty and character.
And those are things that separate us from the animals.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His daily podcast, “Navarrette Nation,” is available through every podcast app.