During a Wednesday roundtable on immigration policies and sanctuary cities with California law enforcement, President Donald Trump raised eyebrows when he responded to one sheriff’s concerns about current policies. After Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims said they might not be able to inform ICE about possible MS-13 gang members, the president responded by declaring they “aren’t people,” but instead “these are animals.”
As Wednesday was chockful of bombshell news stories, it took a short while for those remarks to gain traction. But after CSPAN and other media outlets posted video clips of the president’s comments, outrage grew as it appeared POTUS was talking about illegal immigrants in general. By Thursday morning, however, the media received backlash — especially from conservatives — for presenting Trump’s words without the proper context.
The general consensus among right-leaning media figures is that it was clear the president was referring to violent MS-13 gangsters when he said they are “animals” and that it was patently unfair to say the president was talking about all undocumented immigrants. Over on Twitter, where nuance goes to die, the debate went a few different directions.
One thread was whether the media owed Trump an apology because they misconstrued his comments. Another thread was all about whether or not MS-13 should be called “animals” and if this was the hill libs wanted to die on. But the main thread seemed to be that the president was calling only extremely violent criminals “animals,” and that context needs to be taken into account before labeling his remarks inflammatory and bigoted.
So let’s take a look at the context, shall we? Below is from the White House transcript:
SHERIFF (Margaret) MIMS (Fresno County, CA): Now ICE is the only law enforcement agency that cannot use our databases to find the bad guys. They cannot come in and talk to people in our jail, unless they reach a certain threshold. They can’t do all kinds of things that other law enforcement agencies can do. And it’s really put us in a very bad position.
THE PRESIDENT: It’s a disgrace. Okay? It’s a disgrace.
SHERIFF MIMS: It’s a disgrace.
THE PRESIDENT: And we’re suing on that, and we’re working hard, and I think it will all come together, because people want it to come together. It’s so ridiculous. The concept that we’re even talking about is ridiculous. We’ll take care of it, Margaret. We’ll win.
SHERIFF MIMS: Thank you. There could be an MS-13 member I know about — if they don’t reach a certain threshold, I cannot tell ICE about it.
THE PRESIDENT: We have — 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. And we’re taking them out of the country at a level and at a rate that’s never happened before. And because of the weak laws, they come in fast, we get them, we release them, we get them again, we bring them out. It’s crazy.
And here is the video including that entire exchange:
Look, if you are on the “context” kick, you have to admit that in this frame the president’s remarks are ambiguous and nebulous at best regarding who he is referring to. Mims mentioned a hypothetical MS-13 gang member during her exchange with Trump, but the two were discussing ICE in a more general sense and how they need to be able to access local law enforcement’s databases. We then see the president pivot to a vague point about “people coming into the country, or trying to come in” before saying how “bad” they are.
Now one can parse this out and say the president was clearly referencing just MS-13 killers, especially since he’s used that term numerous times to describe the gang members. But at the same time, he’s also roundly dehumanized and criminalized brown people and immigrants. He’s called them “people from shithole countries” or “rapists” who are pouring across the border. He’s continuously brought up crimes committed by undocumented immigrants as a reason to crack down on sanctuary city policies, all while statistics show those here illegally commit fewer crimes on average than the general population.
The thing is, it isn’t exactly a far leap to make when it comes to believing the president isn’t just referring to a small percentage of very violent criminals when saying they’re animals. (There is a whole other debate, of course, on whether anyone should be dehumanized in this manner.) It has been pretty clear from the time he began his run for president that Trump has tried to conflate mostly black and brown immigrants with criminals, highlight the worst examples of crimes he can find, and then use that criminality to cast all of them as scary boogeymen while stripping away their humanity.
And that is the prism through which these latest comments are being viewed. The president has made it a habit over the past three years of speaking in a dehumanizing way about black and brown immigrants. This is what led a broad swath of (mostly white) voters to cast a ballot for him in 2016. It is what they love about him and why they want him to continue to speak in this manner about all those “illegals.”
It is the president’s history that is the context we should use regarding the remarks he made. It is his administration’s recent uptick in arresting non-criminal undocumented immigrants that we should look at. It is the fact that he seems to never paint white murderers as “animals,” instead just mentioning the terrible acts committed by them while reminding us that there are some “very fine people” on those criminals’ side.
The only context you need for Trump’s “animals” comment is Trump himself. That’s it. That’s your context.