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The Language of Mass Incarceration Is Being Deployed Against Immigrants

Though the president supports some criminal justice reform, his rhetoric works against that effort

November 2, 2018

Updated November 5, 2018: Two days after this article was posted, NBC ran Trump’s ad (albeit an edited version) during Sunday Night Football, a ratings giant for the network. The ad was paid for by President Trump. After receiving a large amount of public backlash, NBC, Facebook, and Fox News have all taken the ad down.

Congress is close to passing a major criminal justice reform bill, one that would extend a semblance of compassion and dignity to federal prisoners. Advocates are also working to ensure the bill includes an effort to reduce federal sentences, which would help reduce mass incarceration. 

Trump has voiced support for the bill. But this contrasts starkly with his other statements. This week, Trump tweeted a dehumanizing video casting immigrants as dangerous murderers, heavily implying that draconian tactics, like the administration’s family separation policy, are the only way to “make America safe again.” 

Don’t believe it. This is the very reasoning that led to the creation of mass incarceration, and it’s a grim reminder that — even as the president supports some reform — the administration is perpetuating the rhetoric of mass incarceration. Yet instead of aiming it at African Americans, it’s explicitly aimed at Latino and Arab Americans. 

The president’s most recent ad features Luis Bracamontes, who received the death penalty in April for killing two California law enforcement officers. The ad then shows Bracamontes saying that he is going to kill cops and repeats that audio throughout, played over images of large groups of people at the border. The ad goes on to say that Democrats are the party of crime, and that Republicans and Trump are the only ones trying to “Make American safe again.” 

It’s hardly a strain to compare this to the “Willie Horton” ads of the late eighties: Both feature “tough-on-crime” posturing, paint Democrats as enablers of violence, and use racial cueing to invoke an overblown fear of mass violence. Indeed, footage for Trump’s ad appears to have come from Fox News, a network itself created by Roger Ailes, who was once an adviser to the Republican PAC that created the “Willie Horton” ad. But Bush distanced himself from the ad, while Trump has pinned his to the top of his Twitter page. 

This latest ad is only the most recent example of how Trump has used race-based rhetoric to stir up fear and entrench racism. It’s a straight line from his announcement speech — labeling Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “murderers” — to an ad painting all Latinx people as cop killers.

We can’t dismiss ads like this as mere words. Indeed, just as the structural racism behind the Willie Horton ad served to justify the prison-building boom of the 1990s, so now does Trump’s racist invective serve to justify a different kind of mass incarceration: the mass, unjustified detention of immigrants. This fearmongering around crime also directly cuts against efforts to reduce over-incarceration generally. Since Trump entered office, stringent immigration laws and increased surveillance capacities have led to mandated felony convictions and prison time for cases that would have previously resulted in simple deportation. ICE arrests jumped 47 percent in the space of two months after Trump took office. As a Brennan Center report showed, arrests of immigrants with no criminal record whatsoever rose especially sharply in the first year of his administration. Worst of all, the president’s “family separation” policy recently rent families apart in a performatively cruel and misguided attempt at deterrence

To be sure, the increased criminalization of undocumented immigration did not begin with Trump. But this president has substantially expanded interior immigration enforcement. He justifies doing so by falsely claiming that immigrants disproportionately commit crimes, even though the data shows that all immigrants — legal and undocumented — are less likely to be incarcerated relative to their shares of the population. If anything, it’s the demographic most representative of Trump supporters — white men — which in the last week alone have sent multiple bomb threats and committed the worst attack on American Jews in the history of the United States.

Relying on racism and lacking any connection to public safety, the Trump administration’s immigration policy proceeds on its own logic — the “logic” of mass incarceration. At the same time, Trump has positioned himself as a criminal justice reformer, by supporting the FIRST STEP Act and granting clemency to Alice Marie Johnson. 

In tandem with this, his rhetoric on immigration has become increasingly more dangerous. This is evident in his recent ad, it is evident in his announcement that he wants to end birthright citizenship, and it is evident in his separation of families seeking asylum. 

As we push toward passing meaningful criminal justice reform, we cannot ignore the ways in which our immigration system is increasingly taking on the most dangerous elements of mass incarceration in our country.