This VOICE tells racist lies

March 9, 2017

Christopher Baum reports on the Trump administration's plan for a new agency that will spread the dangerous slander that immigrants are more likely to commit crimes.

THE TRUMP administration is planning to create a new agency inside the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) whose main purpose is to inflame xenophobia and spread the lie that immigrants are likely to be violent criminals.

Trump first called for the creation of the VOICE (Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement) Office in his January 25 executive order. The details of how this order would be carried out were released a month later in a memo issued by DHS Director John Kelly. The order and Kelly's memo establish three priorities for VOICE:

First, act as a liaison between Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and "known victims of crimes committed by removable aliens," providing information to victims and their families about the immigration and custody status of the alleged offenders.

Second, issue monthly reports of "statistical data regarding aliens apprehended by ICE," including a wide variety of information concerning the alleged offenders' countries of origin, criminal history, gang affiliation, prior immigration violations, etc.

Donald Trump delivers his first speech to Congress
Donald Trump delivers his first speech to Congress

Third, issue weekly reports concerning "non-Federal jurisdictions that release aliens from their custody, notwithstanding that such aliens are subject to a detainer or similar request for custody issued by ICE to that jurisdiction"--in other words, to name and shame sanctuary jurisdictions for refusing to cooperate with deportation efforts. As outlined in Kelly's memo, this report, too, will contain as much information as possible about the alleged offenders.

VOICE IS being proposed as a solution to something that few people outside the right wing's bubble think is a problem: that crime victims aren't given enough information about the immigration status of the alleged offenders. According to the DHS memo:

Criminal aliens routinely victimize Americans and other legal residents. Often, these victims are not provided adequate information about the offender, the offender's immigration status, or any enforcement action taken by ICE against the offender. Efforts by ICE to engage these victims have been hampered by prior Department of Homeland Security (DHS) policy extending certain Privacy Act protections to persons other than U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, leaving victims feeling marginalized and without a voice.

This is pure demagoguery. If someone is victimized by, for example, a drunk driver, their concern is with the criminal act of drunk driving, not the immigration status of the driver. Not being aware a driver's immigration status doesn't make them any more marginalized or "voiceless" than not knowing the driver's religion or political affiliation.

The same principle applies to any crime, however serious: From the standpoint of seeking justice for victims and their loved ones, the immigration status of the offenders can make no possible difference.

It can, however, have considerable political value, and this is surely what Trump and Kelly are seeking to exploit.

There is an undeniable emotional power to claiming to the family of a murder victim that their loved one's killer "never should have been in the country to begin with." The shock and grief resulting from this news can easily be used for propaganda purposes: Even if the grieving family do not themselves become activists against "criminal aliens," their story can still be exploited to encourage others to follow this path.

It was for precisely this reason that, when announcing the creation of VOICE in his February 28 joint address to Congress, Trump pointed out "four very brave Americans" in the audience, all of whom have lost loved ones to violent crimes allegedly perpetrated by undocumented immigrants.

This, apparently, is what it means to "give a voice" to such people: trotting them out for an internationally televised event and publicly exploiting their grief and loss in order to further your own racist anti-immigrant agenda.

The executive order that gave rise to VOICE also directs the DHS to "prioritize the removal" of undocumented immigrants in a variety of categories, including those who have been convicted of a crime, charged with a crime--or committed "acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense," but have not been charged or otherwise pose a threat to public safety or national security "in the judgment of an immigration officer."

The effect of these guidelines, in short, is to declare any undocumented immigrant whom an ICE agent thinks is a criminal to be a criminal.

It remains to be seen whether this very broad conception of "crime" will be carried over into the reports produced by VOICE compiling "statistical data" about crimes committed by undocumented immigrants and weekly reports concerning the non-cooperation of sanctuary jurisdictions. The possibility is certainly there--notice, for instance, that VOICE's monthly report will provide statistics about people apprehended by ICE.

FROM THE earliest days of his presidential campaign, Trump declared loudly and often that the U.S. is experiencing an epidemic of crime committed by undocumented immigrants, and he cultivated alliances with racist anti-immigration groups and individuals.

Now that he's in power, Trump's executive order is an attempt to criminalize immigration itself--and VOICE is the poison he wants to pump into the culture to get people to go along with it.

One of Trump's key allies in this effort is Maria Espinoza, co-founder and National Director of the Remembrance Project, a Houston-based organization that "advocates for families whose loved ones were killed by illegal aliens," most notably by adding their names and images to its "Stolen Lives Quilt."

According to Espinoza's biography on the project's website--which doesn't mention her ties to white nationalists like John Tanton--she has worked since 2009 to "unite the 'stolen lives' families, educating the public of the epidemic of killings across the country, and raising the awareness of the effects of illegal immigration. It is not a victimless crime."

This brief passage lays bare the two lies at the heart of the Remembrance Project, and of Trump's own agenda: First, that undocumented immigrants are responsible for an "epidemic of killings across the country"; and second, that illegal immigration itself leads to violent crime.

In fact, research has consistently shown that immigrants are statistically less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans, and that there is either no correlation between crime rates and levels of immigration. If anything, crime rates appear to decrease as immigration levels rise.

But even if immigrants were not less likely to commit crimes, VOICE would still be cause for concern. The clear intent of these measures is to stoke public hatred of immigrants--and the administration's rhetoric about "upholding the laws of this nation" is a coded racist message aimed at that end.

THE UNVEILING of VOICE immediately--and rightly--prompted comparisons to Nazi Germany. As Peter Beinart wrote in The Atlantic:

In The Nazi Conscience, Duke historian Claudia Koonz notes that the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer ran a feature called "Letter Box," which published readers' accounts of Jewish crimes. When the Nazis took power, the German state began doing something similar. Frustrated by the failure of most Germans to participate in a boycott of Jewish businesses in April 1933, Adolf Hitler's government began publicizing Jewish crime statistics as a way of stoking anti-Semitism.

In Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution, the historian Saul Friedlander notes that, until 1938, Hitler's Ministry of Justice ordered prosecutors to forward every criminal indictment against a Jew so the ministry's press office could publicize it.

The parallels between the Nazis' use of crime statistics and those contemplated by VOICE are troubling enough. But because of its status as a "legitimate" government agency, VOICE's programs also have the potential to inject into the mainstream the propaganda of far-right publications and websites that are the modern-day equivalent of Der Stürmer's.

These publications have already managed to do great harm. For instance, Dylann Roof, the anti-Black terrorist who slaughtered nine people in a South Carolina church in 2015, acknowledges that he came across "pages upon pages of these brutal Black on white murders" on the website of the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), a notorious white supremacist organization.

In Roof's case, the connection between racist "reporting" of crimes and violence is unusually direct and explicit. But if his story is an extreme case, it is by no means unique. And, of course, the CCC is far from the only such group publishing lists of the alleged crimes of nonwhite Americans, as we've already seen with the Remembrance Project.

Notably, Breitbart News, when it was under the leadership of Trump's current chief strategist Steve Bannon, responded to the Black Lives Matter movement by gathering stories of alleged crimes committed by African Americans under the "Black Crime" tag.

These sites are notorious for cherry-picking their stories for maximum effect and publishing false or misleading information. One reason they've found a wide audience is that "Black-on-white" crime is also overreported in the more "respectable" media.

Now Trump, Bannon and Kelly want the U.S. government to get in on the act. We shouldn't let them get away with it.

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