When he kicked off his presidential bid by referring to immigrants as “killers” and “rapists,” Donald Trump set the tone for what’s been characterized as an aberrant sideshow. Reince Priebus, chair of the Republican National Committee, called to ask him to “tone it down a little bit.” That was unsuccessful, as well as ironic: Back in 2012, it was Donald Trump who argued that Mitt Romney lost his bid for the White House because of his “maniacal” immigration rhetoric.
Trump’s comments drew a rash of public criticism from the press and some of his business partners, but it took the GOP field weeks to respond. Contrast that to the indignation Trump’s rivals swiftly unloaded in reaction to his razzing of Arizona Senator John McCain. The message sent was that questioning a veteran’s valor makes one unfit for the presidency; characterizing millions of people as “rapists” earns one a quiet call. Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and others did belatedly try to put distance between themselves and Trump on immigration; Bush asserted that Trump’s “views are way out of the mainstream of what Republicans think.” But since then many of the candidates have enthusiastically joined a crusade for stricter enforcement, based on unsupported notions about the criminality of immigrants—a move that suggests Tump’s views are in line with the way Republicans act, at least.
Following Trump’s lead, candidates and lawmakers have seized on the death of a Kathryn Steinle, a young woman shot and killed in San Francisco earlier this month allegedly by an undocumented Mexican immigrant named Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, who’d been deported several times and was recently released from custody by city authorities. Claiming that Steinle’s death is the result of lax immigration enforcement, lawmakers are now moving on a number of bills designed to crack down on San Francisco and some 300 other “sanctuary cities” where police decline to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. The House is scheduled to vote this week on a bill that would strip Justice Department grants from cities that refuse to work with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, and a handful of similar proposals have been introduced in the Senate. Democrats have dubbed the House bill the “Donald Trump Act.”
There’s no evidence that Steinle’s death represents a broader trend linking the undocumented to violent crime. “The trends are actually clear in the case of immigration and crime: immigrants are less likely to be behind bars and less likely to commit crimes than native-born people,” said Walter Ewing, senior researcher at the American Immigration Council and one of the authors of a new study that challenges assumptions about the criminality of immigrants. “You can find examples of any group of people committing heinous crimes,” Ewing said when I asked how to explain Steinle’s death. “What’s different is how you respond. If a white person commits a heinous crime, you don’t say, ‘Oh my god, those white people—you’ve got to do something about that.’”