At a campaign rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan, last week, President Trump attacked people seeking asylum in the United States. Falsely claiming that they want “amnesty,” Trump mused that asylum-seekers were being coached by immigration lawyers to say “I’m very afraid for my life,” he mocked, adding, “then I look at the guy, he looks like he just got out of the ring, he’s the heavyweight champion of the world.” “It’s a big fat con job,” he lambasted.
From virtually Day One of his presidency, a defining feature of Trump’s tenure has been his war on refugees and asylum-seekers. From slamming the door on refugees during his first week in office, to slashing the number of refugees the U.S. will accept to historic lows, to illegally attempting to force asylum-seekers to stay in Mexico, Trump’s assault on those seeking refuge is not new. Still, it is worth dissecting his latest gratuitous attack, for it reveals just how unworthy the man is of the office he holds.
To give full context to Trump’s anti-refugee agenda, one must grasp the dire circumstances that people are fleeing in Central America. The “Northern Triangle” of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador is among the most violent and dangerous places on Earth. For years, citizens of those countries have been tormented by transnational criminal gangs like MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang, which are heavily involved in drug trafficking and extortion. The governments in these countries have been too weak to curb the violence, and police forces are often bought off or complicit in it.
That has left millions of innocent people caught in the crossfire. Fearing for their lives, they look northward for safety, and many ultimately come to the United States pleading for asylum.
The right to asylum is a fundamental right enshrined under both U.S. law and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. People who come to the United States based on a credible fear of persecution or torture in their home country are entitled to remain here while seeking asylum. That is their right.
Which brings us to the utter soullessness of Trump’s Grand Rapids demagoguery. You’ll notice that he deliberately conflates asylum with “amnesty.” There’s a big difference. Asylum is a legal right, whereas amnesty is a discretionary government grant of forgiveness for previous wrongdoing (think of the debate over amnesty for Vietnam War draft-dodgers). By accusing asylum-seekers of asking for amnesty, Trump is implying that they are asking to be forgiven for some crime. In reality, asylum seekers are turning themselves in at the border and pleading for refuge in the United States, which is exactly what the law prescribes.
Next, Trump casts doubt on the veracity of the claims brought by asylum-seekers. Yet Trump spent the 2018 midterm election cycle drumming up fear about the very same violent gangs that these people are fleeing. In Long Island, he invoked “the menace of MS-13, a ruthless gang that has violated our borders and transformed our once peaceful neighborhoods into blood-stained fields.” He even saw fit to condemn the gang in his State of the Union address this year. In the United States, MS-13-connected murders have plummeted. But to Trump, those people actually persecuted by gangs and fleeing the actual “blood-stained fields” in the Northern Triangle are perpetuating a “big fat con job.” Trump’s concern about MS-13 runs no deeper than its usefulness for domestic political scare-mongering.
And his latest scare tactic is demonizing asylum seekers themselves as menacing trojan-horse brawlers — “heavyweight champion[s] of the world,” as he puts it. Characterizing those seeking aid as undeserving physically-imposing brutes is an old trope in right-wing politics. Ronald Reagan painted food stamp recipients as “strapping young bucks.” Iowa congressman Steve King claimed that immigrants enter the United States with “calves the size of cantaloupes” from hauling drugs across the border. Trump’s revival of this race-baiting trope harkens back to his own 2016 warning about “bad hombres” sneaking into the country.
The truth is that many of those fleeing violence in Central America are mothers in flip flops carrying children, and desperate fathers trying to protect their families from ceaseless violence. In similar circumstances, most of us would no doubt do the same.
The Trump administration followed up on the president’s campaign comments by cutting off American aid to the Northern Triangle countries — a policy of deliberate cruelty that will only exacerbate the dire circumstances in those countries, and increase the surge of migrants heading to the United States. One wonders if this consequence is a deliberate effort by the president to manufacture a migrant crisis ahead of the 2020 election.
Keep that in mind as you watch Trump stir up campaign crowds on the backs of people traveling thousands of miles under the enduring belief that the United States is a beacon of liberty, refuge, and hope. The dynamic at his rallies in Grand Rapids and elsewhere is a familiar one: a bully holding court, winning cheap laughs at the expense of the weakest among us. Trump has many abhorrent character traits, but perhaps the most detestable is his utter eagerness to punch down, using the world’s highest office to trample upon some of its most vulnerable people. Decent-minded Americans must deeply consider whether that’s the type of person we really want holding that office.