Last spring, as challenges to the Trump administration’s immigration ban were making their way through the federal courts, Saturday Night Live produced a spoof ad starring Scarlett Johansson as Ivanka Trump. Wearing a gold lamé dress, Ivanka walks across a softly lit room and waves to her admirers, while the voice-over introduces her new signature perfume, Complicit. The sketch was an instant hit and led to so much commentary that the president’s daughter was asked about it on CBS This Morning.
I was reminded of the sketch when I saw the commercial that Donald Trump released on the first anniversary of his inauguration. This new ad features Luis Bracamontes, an undocumented immigrant recently convicted of killing two Sacramento-area sheriff’s deputies, telling the courtroom that “the only thing that I f— regret is that I f— just killed two.” An unseen narrator ominously warns that Trump is right about illegal immigration and that a border wall should be built, but Democrats stand in the way. The title of the ad? “Complicit.”
The contrast between these two ads couldn’t be sharper: One pokes fun at the president’s daughter, the other points a finger at the Democrats over a specific policy. This turn of events is perhaps unsurprising—Trump has a talent for subverting any critical narrative directed at him and mobilizing his nativist base around it—but it is significant that the focus of one of his first reelection ads is an undocumented immigrant who committed a violent crime. The Bracamontes commercial uses the same ingredients as the infamous Willie Horton ad of 1988, which is to say fear and racism, and applies them to what has always been this president’s core issue: immigration. If you happen to think that spending billions of dollars on a border wall is an ineffective or wasteful policy, this ad paints you as complicit in murder.
The language here is important. From the beginning, Trump has tried to change the terms under which this country debates immigration. Remember that “bad hombres” cross the border from Mexico. Remember that “illegal aliens” come here to “steal” jobs. Remember that Muslim immigration needs a “complete and total shutdown.” Remember that immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and Africa come from “shithole countries.” Now the president has begun to complain that “chain migration” should be stopped because it allows a single immigrant to “bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives.”
That these labels aren’t rooted in actual facts hasn’t stopped Trump from using them. “Chain migration,” for example, is an academic term that refers to a specific migration pattern in which people from a particular town or area hear of a local’s success in another country and decide to follow the same path. This can often mean family members: Think about the Vietnamese nail salons in California, which grew out of a few businesses started by refugees in Sacramento, or the Irish and Italian immigrants in Boston and New York. But Trump is using the term “chain migration,” with its connotations of shackles and fetters, to refer to family reunification, which is the program that allows immigrants to sponsor their spouses and children and allows citizens to sponsor their parents and siblings. Annual caps already exist on the number of such visas, and the waiting lists are so long for some relatives, such as parents and siblings, that it takes many years for them to be processed.