From Jason Stanley’s op-ed in the NY Times:
“In the United States, Donald Trump rode to victory with a call to expel “criminal aliens.” In his announcement of his run for office, he spoke of Mexican immigrants as “rapists.” Since he has taken office, he has harshly targeted immigrants in the United States; at his rally on Saturday in Harrisburg, Pa., he compared immigrants — as he did last year — to poisonous snakes, to great applause. It is worth noting that this tactic of dehumanization — referring to humans as animals — has historically been used to foment hatred and violence against chosen groups. In the lead up to the Rwandan genocide, for instance, Tutsis were regularly described as snakes.
While President Barack Obama set deportation priorities by making a distinction between undocumented immigrants with serious criminal convictions and everyone else, Trump’s executive orders vastly expand the criminal category — so much so that it essentially criminalizes anyone in the country who is without status and makes the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States a top priority for deportation. Between January and March of this year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested 21,362 immigrants, a 32.6 percent increase from the same period last year. Of those arrested, 5,441 of them had no history of violating a law.
The administration’s hard line on the standard for criminalization has gone so far as to alarm several members of the Supreme Court, as demonstrated during an argument before the Court last week (Maslenjak v. United States), in which a Justice Department lawyer argued that, as The Times reported, “the government may revoke the citizenship of Americans who made even trivial misstatements in their naturalization proceedings,” including not disclosing a criminal offense of any kind, even if there was no arrest. To test the severity of that position, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., confessed to a crime — driving 60 miles an hour in a 55-mile-an-hour zone many years ago without being caught. He then asked if a person who had not disclosed such an incident in his citizenship application could have his citizenship revoked. The lawyer answered, yes. There was “indignation and incredulity” expressed by the members of the Court. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy told the lawyer, “Your argument is demeaning the priceless value of citizenship.” Roberts put it simply. If the administration has its way, he said, “the government will have the opportunity to denaturalize anyone they want.”
EXILE FROM ONE’S HOME is historically considered one of the worst punishments the state could employ; it was, after all, one of the traditional Greek and Roman punishments for murder, their alternative to the death penalty. In the opening pages of her book, my grandmother speaks to its harshness, as well as to the complex relationship between expulsion and death:
“With millions of others, I was singled out to live two lives. One day, which seemed to be like any ordinary day, I was told: ‘“Stop just where you are. This life of yours is finished. Fulfilled or not — it stops right now. You are not going to die — go and begin another.’ ”
“My roots were stuck deeply in their native German soil. Perhaps a part broke and remained there, for how am I to explain that my heart at times seems to be drawn by a force thousands of miles away?” The pain of being torn from her roots, she wrote, stayed with her throughout her life “as the stump of an amputated leg causes a man to say, ‘My foot hurts’; and yet he knows there is no foot to hurt.”
The president and his administration regularly stoke fear of immigrants by connecting them to criminality. Again and again, we are presented with the specter of “criminal aliens” — and not just in remarks but also in official documents, like the announcement of a new office in the Department of Homeland Security devoted to helping “victims of crimes committed by criminal aliens.”
The word “criminal” has a literal meaning, of course, but it also has a resonant meaning — people who by their nature are insensitive to society’s norms, drawn to violate the law by self-interest or malice. We do not generally use the term to describe those who may have inadvertently broken a law or who may have been compelled to violate a law in a desperate circumstance. Someone who runs to catch a bus is not necessarily a runner; someone who commits a crime is not necessarily a criminal.
Politicians who describe people as “criminals” are imputing to them permanent character traits that are frightening to most people, while simultaneously positioning themselves as our protectors. Such language undermines the democratic process of reasonable decision-making, replacing it with fear. Discussion that uses terms like “criminal” to encompass both those who commit multiple homicides for pleasure and those who commit traffic violations distorts attitudes and debates.
Deliberately obscuring the crucial distinction between someone who violates a law and someone whose character leads them to repeatedly commit serious crimes is an effective strategy for masking gross injustice. Our current administration is vigorously employing that strategy, and history suggests that it is rarely constrained to just one group. If we look away when the state brands someone a criminal, who among us then remains safe?