In the past, right-wing media have praised President Donald Trump’s immigration rhetoric, even as it conflated all undocumented immigrants with gang members. Now, after Trump pivoted from a vague question about MS-13 yesterday to say some undocumented immigrants “aren’t people, these are animals,” right-wing media are attacking mainstream outlets for reporting on the ambiguity of his remark and insisting he was talking exclusively about MS-13 gang members. But those same right-wing media figures, along with Trump, have helped foster an environment in which a mention of the term “MS-13” evokes undocumented immigrants, and this false association is having negative consequences for immigrants across the country.
During a roundtable discussion about California’s so-called sanctuary laws on Wednesday, a local sheriff said to Trump, “There could be an MS-13 member I know about. If they don’t reach a certain threshold, I cannot tell ICE about them.” In response, Trump talked about “people coming into the country” and made no explicit reference to gang members:
“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, 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.”
Many in the media reported accurately that Trump had called “some deported immigrants” or “some unauthorized immigrants” animals, and several journalists noted the ambiguity of his comment. But pro-Trump outlets opportunistically attacked mainstream outlets for their coverage, arguing that they had selectively edited his comment or taken him out of context. Infowars described the coverage as a “shocking level of deceit,” and CNN’s Rick Santorum complained that “this is one of the reasons that a big chunk of the country just turn off the media when they start going after the president.”
Trump’s vague response had made no mention of the gang, and whether he was referring to gang members or undocumented immigrants in general, the dehumanizing effect was the same. As Vox pointed out, Trump’s strategic rhetorical ambiguity allows him to “refer to some specific criminals, call them horrible people and animals, say that their evil justifies his immigration policy, and allow the conflation of all immigrants and all Latinos with criminals and animals to remain subtext.”
Right-wing media have boosted this type of rhetoric by praising Trump for erroneously hyping MS-13’s presence in the U.S. as a product of lax immigration policies, and many have conflated MS-13 and immigrants themselves. On any given day, trivial news about MS-13 -- a brutal gang founded in Los Angeles that has been able to grow in strength due to stringent deportation policies and mass incarceration -- will be broadcast in the conservative media sphere, almost always laced with complaints about lax immigration policies.
The reality is that, while many MS-13 members are undocumented immigrants, the vast majority of undocumented immigrants are not MS-13 members, and the right-wing media campaign to conflate the two is having serious consequences.
Such rhetoric mirrors actual policies being put in place by the Trump administration. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has been using dangerously broad criteria to label undocumented immigrants as gang members, giving the agency cover to carry out hundreds of arrests under the auspices of an “anti-gang operation.” Just this week, a federal judge ruled that ICE outright lied to frame one person as “gang-affiliated.” Nonetheless, right-wing outlets dutifully report on the raids, casting ICE agents as heroes and the non-criminal immigrants as animals.
Whether or not Trump was referring to MS-13 by calling people who cross the border “animals,” right-wing media and agencies like ICE benefit from his irresponsible and coded language, and non-criminal immigrants will bear the brunt of the fallout.