President Trump’s latest “analysis” of immigrant-related crime is Exhibit A in fake news. But it’s worth examining how the White House’s xenophobic propaganda crusade has perfected the manipulation of stereotypes to a science.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) and Homeland Security’s new report on crime and terrorism presents professionally cherry-picked data to bolster the perception that the country is under siege from hordes of foreign criminals. The data compilation, a product of Trump’s executive order on “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” is supposed to make the case for Trump’s crackdown on the border, mass raids, and deportations, and the banning of travelers from various Muslim-majority countries. But even a cursory glance at the numbers the DOJ provides shows how junk statistics help stoke the deep racism of Trump’s anti-immigration agenda, using the same rhetoric that the alt-right deploys to twist notions of “social science” to justify racist discrimination and oppression.
Ultraconservative Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the report with a call to action: “…it is simply not reasonable to keep asking [officials] to risk their lives to enforce the law while we admit thousands every year without sufficient knowledge about their backgrounds. The pillars of President Trump’s immigration policy…will make their jobs easier and make the United States a safer place.” The statistics were presented with dubiously elastic links to policies Trump hates, like the “diversity lottery” program, which has been connected to the Afghanistan-born suspect of the recent Manhattan terrorist attack, and to justify rolling back due process and drastically expanding domestic enforcement raids and mass detentions, which are now terrorizing immigrant communities nationwide. In reality, nothing presented in the report remotely justifies the current level of enforcement, much less expanding existing policies, which have upended both the previous administration’s civil-rights protections and the Bill of Rights as a whole.
But now distorted crime figures are pouring fuel on the flames of Trump’s crackdowns. The Justice Department misleadingly portrays the majority of terrorism convictions as an outcome of migration, stating that of the 549 individuals who were convicted on charges of international terrorism since September 11, 2001, 73 percent were foreign-born (including, misleadingly, even extradited suspects). But this statistic gives little background about individuals’ immigration status, nor does it contextualize the data with statistics on the overall incidence of terrorism, including systematic violence perpetrated by the rapidly mushrooming white-supremacist and neofascist movements that Trump has alternately praised as “good people” and ignored over the past year.
A breakdown of the convictions shows a grand total of fewer than three per year, and most were naturalized or born in the United States (that is, “homegrown”). Of those who are immigrants, their precise legal status at the time of the crime is unclear. Meanwhile, several times as many immigrants were deported simply based on suspicion of terrorism, which says nothing about the actual risks they posed, in an era of post-9/11 counterterrorism hysteria. Basically, immigration status is often used as grounds for initiating a removal proceeding against someone who has been simply suspected of terrorism.
What we do know, as the New Republic and The Huffington Post have pointed out in the case of a recently unsealed and previously unreported domestic-terrorism charge, is that while right-wing zealots terrorize communities of color daily, the administration tends to downplay the threats posed by militant white supremacists targeting marginalized communities.
Similarly, the report highlights people denied the right to fly on airlines because they are listed on a “terrorist watch list”—an opaque database that civil libertarians have denounced as leading to rampant misidentification and discriminatory targeting of innocent people, including many guilty only of having Muslim-sounding names.
The Justice Department has also thrown in some fearmongering statistics on so-called “honor killings” of women, a phenomenon typically attributed to Muslim and South Asian cultures as a response to family “dishonor” or sexual transgression. Outside of periodic media sensations, there’s virtually no comprehensive data on international incidents. But the report flags a distorted figure of 23 to 27 honor-based killings in the United States annually, using manipulated figures pulled from a Justice Department study based on dubious data extrapolations.
Additionally, the report conflates reported incidents of female genital mutilation with convictions for sex offenses involving immigrants—a massively broad categorization that says nothing about the vast majority of immigrants who are completely law-abiding and pose absolutely no threat
The report also suggests that women are being pressed onto “forced marriages.” But this is drawn from a study on the forced and under-aged marriage of young women as a domestic issue impacting a broad range of communities, typically because of failed state protections against abuse.
Tahirih, the immigrant and women’s-rights organization that developed the research on forced marriage and has sharply criticized the Sessions report, emphasizes that its own findings on coerced marriage show that “Both the victims and perpetrators were diverse in religious, ethnic, and national background, including U.S. citizens and immigrants.”
Archi Pyati, Tahirih’s chief of policy, has denounced Trump’s policies for making the immigrant women her group works with—survivors of trafficking, domestic abuse and gender-based violence—less likely to report the crimes they are the victims of. “If police discover a criminal act,” she says, “they should investigate and prosecute to the extent of the law—that’s what protects victims and keeps all communities safe—and with the protections of due process in place to protect the rights of the alleged perpetrator,” regardless of anyone’s immigration status. As the White House peddles propaganda with misleading statistics, Pyati warns, “opportunistic flashing of the words gender-based violence simply fuels the flames of racism, xenophobia, and anti-immigrant sentiment…which keep immigrants from being able to access their rights, stop them from reporting crime, and ultimately, make us all less safe.”
Violence, in other words, can be committed by anyone, and affects everyone, beyond borders—it can even come from the White House.