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U.S. President Donald Trump hosts a "California Sanctuary State Roundtable" at the White House in Washington. U.S., May 16, 2018.  © 2018 Reuters

Presidential words matter – especially in a White House statement. So US President Donald Trump’s description of immigrants (he later specified that he meant MS-13 gang-members) as “animals” raises red flags amongst those of us who remember what can happen when governments demonize an entire group of people. Especially when such language comes right after a new immigration policy that instructs border guards to separate children from their parents to prosecute the parents for crossing the US border – even for families seeking refuge from violence.

The term “animals” first hit the headlines last week, when the president told a group of  local government officials: “We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in – 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.”

Turning what might have been an off-the-cuff comment into official and dehumanizing rhetoric, the White House yesterday released a list of horrible crimes committed by MS-13 gang members and repeatedly described them as “animals,” while claiming that critics were taking the president’s earlier comment out of context. While many MS-13 gang members have done very bad things, they are not animals, and that kind of rhetoric serves to rationalize abusive, inhumane behavior and policies.

Such overheated, dehumanizing and even racist language has a history of leading to harmful policies. Politicians in the 1990s labeled black and Latino youth as “super-predators” to justify prison expansion, vastly increased sentencing, and overly aggressive law enforcement that has devastated communities of color.

Trump has consistently spoken this way to justify his abusive and bigoted immigration policies. Mexican immigrants are “drug dealers, criminals, rapists,” despite the fact that immigrants commit far fewer crimes than US-born citizens. African, Caribbean, and Central American countries are “shitholes” and the US should instead welcome people from predominantly white Norway.

The president and his media supporters try to obscure the racist reality of his words and policies by claiming that by “animals” he meant only MS-13 gang members. 

Claiming the “animals” comment is just about MS-13 is a semantic trick – don’t buy it. Trump’s policies put immigrants in the crosshairs; he is increasing deportations of deeply-rooted, hardworking people away from their homes, families, and communities. While claiming to protect us from dangerous gangsters, he makes it US policy to rip children from the arms of their parents in order to criminalize migrants and asylum seekers and break families apart through massive deportations. Americans should see through this ploy and reject the inhumane policies that Trump’s rhetoric serves.

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