WASHINGTON -- Racism is a feature of the Trump administration, not a bug. Like demagogues before him, President Trump and his aides consistently single out one group for scapegoating and persecution: non-white Hispanic immigrants.
Trump doesn’t much seem to like non-white newcomers from anywhere, in truth -- remember how he once expressed a fond wish for more immigrants from Norway? -- but he displays an especially vicious antipathy toward men, women and even children from Latin America. We have not seen such overt racism from a president since Woodrow Wilson imposed Jim Crow segregation in Washington and approvingly showed “The Birth of a Nation,” director D.W. Griffith’s epic celebration of the Ku Klux Klan, at the White House.
Trump encourages supporters to see the nation as beset by high levels of violent crime -- and to blame the “animals” of the street gang MS-13. He is lying; crime rates nationwide are far lower than two or three decades ago, and some big cities are safer than they have been in a half-century. But Trump has to paint a dystopian panorama in order to justify the need to Make America Great Again.
MS-13 is, indeed, unspeakably violent. But it is small; law enforcement officials estimate the gang’s total U.S. membership at roughly 10,000, concentrated in a few metropolitan areas that have large populations of Central American immigrants -- Los Angeles, New York and Washington. Trump never acknowledges that the gang was founded in the United States by immigrants from El Salvador and exported to Central America, where it took hold. He also neglects to mention that its members here, mostly teenagers, generally direct their violence at one another, not at outsiders.
Trump deliberately exaggerates the threat from MS-13 in order to justify his brutality toward Central American asylum-seekers at the border. People should never be treated that way, but “animals” are a different story.
It is unbelievable that the U.S. government would separate more than 2,300 children from their parents for no good reason other than to demonstrate cruelty. It is shocking that our government would expect toddlers and infants to represent themselves at formal immigration hearings. It is incredible that our government, forced to grudgingly end the policy, would charge desperate parents hundreds or thousands of dollars to be reunited with their children. It is appalling that our government would refuse even to give a full and updated accounting of how many children still have not been returned. Yet all of this has been done -- in our name.
Trump uses words such as “invading” and “infest” and “breeding” to describe Central American migrants who arrive at the border lawfully seeking asylum. I’ll believe this is neutral immigration policy when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents begin hunting down and locking up Norwegians who have overstayed their visas.
Said Norwegians, if anyone bothered to look for them, might well be taking jobs away from American workers or taking advantage of social-welfare programs or boosting crime rates. There is no evidence that asylum-seekers are doing any of these things.
Trump’s policies flow from a worldview that he has never tried to hide. To describe Trump and aides such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions and adviser Stephen Miller as “anti-immigration” tells only part of the story. They adopt the stance of racial and cultural warriors, “defending” the United States against brown-skinned, Spanish-speaking hordes “invading” from the south.
Trump has proposed not just building a wall along the border with Mexico to halt the flow of undocumented migrants, but also changing the system of legal immigration so that it no longer promotes family unification. He calls his aim a “merit-based” system, but Miller has specified that the administration wants to produce “more assimilation.”
Yet there is no evidence that immigrants from Latin America fail to assimilate in any way except one: They do not come to look like Trump’s mental image of “American,” which is basically the same as his mental image of “Norwegian.”
This is a story as old as the nation. German, Irish, Polish, Italian and other immigrant groups were once seen as irredeemably foreign and incapable of assimilating. The ethnic and racial mix of the country has changed before and is changing now.
Hispanics are by far the biggest minority group in the country, making up nearly 18 percent of the population; by 2060, the Census Bureau estimates, that share will rise to nearly 29 percent. Trump is punishing Central American mothers and babies because, try as he might, he can’t Make America White Again.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is email@example.com.