A Houston man driving his children to school on a chilly morning in February 2017 was the first to spot the body of Genesis Cornejo-Alvarado lying on a curb. Believing she had been hit by a car, he stopped to render aid, but gunshot wounds to her face and torso told him that she was beyond help. The fifteen-year-old girl was a victim of murder.
About a month after her body was found, a fourteen-year-old girl went to police and told a story of having escaped from imprisonment by two Salvadoran men who were in the United States illegally. The younger girl said the men had kidnapped Genesis, drugged her, and passed her around for sex. The men were members of Mara Salvatrucha, a violent Los Angeles-born gang better known as MS-13, and Genesis had crossed them by striking a satanic alter that they called “The Beast.” One of the men—Miguel Alvarez-Flores, 22—allegedly offered a cigarette to The Beast as a peace offering but then announced that the shrine would only accept a soul. Genesis died as part of a satanic ritual, the younger girl told police. During a court hearing after his arrest, Alvarez-Flores happily waved at a KTRK-TV camera.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo later in an NPR interview called MS-13 one of the worst street gangs in the nation.
Well, they are brutal. They’re ruthless. They will kill without blinking an eye. We had a young lady that was brutally raped and murdered. And just the lack of empathy, the lack of respect, the lack of human decency with these guys that makes them—they celebrate homicide. They celebrate brutality. And they wear it as a badge of honor. And that’s something that makes them extremely dangerous.
President Trump last year seized on MS-13 murders in Houston and Boston as justification for his controversial border security push. Then the Internet lit up on Wednesday when he talked about MS-13 at a California roundtable meeting, describing members as “animals,” which quickly truncated into claims that Trump used that term to describe all immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Conservatives quickly claimed Trump’s words were taken out of context. Here’s the official White House transcript:
(Fresno County) SHERIFF (Margaret) 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 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. 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.
This rapidly deteriorated into a debate over parsing words. Trump called all immigrants animals, critics said. No, his words were taken out of context, defenders countered.
Trump clearly was talking about MS-13, not all immigrants. He had opened the roundtable by calling the gang “sadistic criminals.” When you consider the murder of Genesis, it is easy to describe men like the MS-13 members in Houston as inhuman. Los Zetas drug cartel killed 72 immigrants in 2010. In an attempt to assassinate the Colombian president, drug lord Pablo Escobar had a passenger airplane blown up in 1989, killing 107 people on board and three on the ground. Men who commit such crimes are animals.
But whenever President Trump talks about MS-13 or Middle Eastern terrorists, he is spreading a form of ethnic guilt by association to tarnish the much broader immigrant community. By using isolated incidents, he is dehumanizing larger groups of people. The history of man’s inhumanity to man is filled with instances of one group dehumanizing another. So while his words applied only to MS-13, they more broadly painted all immigrants from Mexico and Central America as potential murderers and rapists.
Among street gangs, MS-13 is exceptionally brutal, but their numbers also are very small, especially in Texas. The Texas Department of Public Safety last year estimated there are 100,000 street gang members in Texas, but only 500 were members of MS-13. The largest street gang was Tango Blast, with 19,000 members—I find it hard to be afraid of a street gang whose name sounds like a drink from a slush machine—and is listed by DPS as the most dangerous gang in Texas.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott last month justified putting the National Guard on the border with Mexico on the grounds of an increase in the arrest of MS-13 members illegally entering the state. “Stunningly, and disturbingly, there’s been an increase of more than 200 percent of MS-13 coming across the border,” Abbott said in Weslaco. An Associated Press fact check ruled that Abbott was low on the percentage increase; the number actually was 300 percent. However, the fact check also noted that the number of arrests was 123 in a sector where 66,000 apprehensions had occurred. A record number of 437 MS-13 apprehensions at the border occurred several years ealier in 2014.
As much as there is wrong in Trump and Abbott blowing the threat of MS-13 out of proportion to justify xenophobic policies, the left is wrong in taking Trump’s words out of context. Earlier today, Texas Democratic Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa issued a statement, saying, “Immigrants are mothers and fathers, they are not ‘animals’. Donald Trump sees no humanity in people who are working hard, but living in fear because of a broken immigration system. It’s clear Trump Republicans are hellbent on tearing apart families to score political points. We’ve seen this kind of demonizing language before, oppressive dictators dehumanize entire populations hoping to seed hate and bigotry. That’s exactly what this president is doing and what he’s always believed.”
While the effect of Trump’s words implies that the problem of immigrant crime is far greater than reality, he did not call mothers and fathers “animals.” And thus Republican can easily dismiss such criticism as “fake news.” A University of Virginia political scientist names Gerard Alexander last week wrote a piece for The New York Times that made a cogent argument that liberal angst is helping Trump: “Many liberals are very smart. But they are not as smart, or as persuasive, as they think. And a backlash against liberals—a backlash that most liberals don’t seem to realize they’re causing—is going to get President Trump re-elected.” Alexander argues that liberals are using their position in American culture to judge and disdain those who do not agree with them completely, and by doing so are pushing more and more people toward the Trump camp. I don’t see that trend as forcibly as Alexander, but Trump’s approval ratings have been inching up in public opinion polls.
There also is an effort to counter anti-immigrant rhetoric among Republicans through #resistancegenealogy—using modern search engines to build a picture of the immigrant past of those who surround Trump and his ideology. Writer Jennifer Mendelsohn started the movement. The point is to make conservatives consider their own hypocrisy in a country where everyone has an immigrant ancestor. Over the weekend, Mendelsohn went after commentator Tomi Lahren, noting that her ancestors did not speak English when they arrived. Lahren responded by saying Mendelsohn had “failed miserably” if her goal had been to show Lahren’s family immigrated illegally.
Rebecca Onion—an Ohio historian with a PhD in American Studies from the University of Texas—wrote this week in Slate that resistancegenealogy is a “liberal delusion” that is doing more harm to the cause than good. “#ResistanceGenealogy is fundamentally flawed. Its popularity showcases the left’s inability to recognize how deeply racism is embedded in the Trump administration’s approach to immigration, and to see clearly what the effects of that racism are.” She went on to write, “People who support the Trump administration’s immigration policies want fewer Honduran mothers and their 18-month-olds to enter the country. If you start from this position, nothing you hear about illiterate Germans coming to the United States in the 19th century will change your mind.”
In a different context, Texas Democrats made this same mistake in the 2014 gubernatorial election with Wendy Davis’s infamous wheelchair commercial. The advertisement was meant to emphasize that Abbott won millions of dollars in a major lawsuit settlement after a falling tree made him a paraplegic in 1984. Then the commercial noted cases from when Abbott was on the Texas Supreme Court in which he blocked injured individuals from suing. The commercial was mostly true, but it had the effect of making Texas voters believe she was picking on someone who is partially paralyzed. Instead of turning the tide, the ad led Davis to suffer one of the worst defeats in Texas history.
Poking Trump in the eye over his xenophobic rhetoric feels good to people on the left, but professor Alexander is right: They may be pushing so hard that they will help Trump win another term of office in 2020.