In the first speech of his campaign for the GOP nomination, Donald Trump dove headlong into a conversation about immigration. Deviating from the prepared speech, Mr. Trump made the argument that has continued to frame his position on immigration. First, he argued that undocumented immigrants from Mexico are impinging upon the rights of American workers.
“They are beating us, economically,” he said.
The other element of his analysis of immigration was about the character of those immigrants, who he famously characterized as a threat to American society. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” he asserted from a podium in the New York City’s Trump Tower. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists."
Hedging his bet only slightly, he added: "Some, I assume, are good people.”
Since that day, Donald Trump has dominated his party’s primary. Night after night, news broadcasts report on his unwavering poll numbers as an interesting anomaly, dissecting the reasons for his unexpected success.
But Donald Trump’s success isn’t all that mysterious and it isn’t particularly new. He’s trafficking in the fear of a shifting American demographic. The story here is not necessarily the racist and anti-immigrant message anchoring Trump’s ideology. Instead, it’s the fact that so much of the Republican electorate is with him, and that other members of the GOP are unable to challenge his message for fear of losing that base.
More than half of Trump’s stump speech is a finely tuned anti-immigrant screed about the importance of building a wall, and getting criminals out of the country. He picked a fight with Jorge Ramos, beloved reporter for Univision and American citizen, at a national press conference last week. After that exchange, one of Trump’s supporters threateningly told Ramos to “get out of my country.”
Under “Positions” on Trump's campaign website, there is only one issue listed: immigration reform. He is the anti-immigration candidate, and he’s winning his party’s primary.
The rhetoric of the Trump campaign is bombastic. He touts how tough he’ll be on China, how his business success inoculates him from needing to trade favors with lobbyists, how he’ll be humane as he deports 11 million undocumented immigrants, their families and their children. He reminded us, at the press conference in which he ejected Jorge Ramos, that “Hispanics love me!” All the while, he promises “make America great again.”
This begs the question: To which golden age of American greatness is Trump harkening? The answer of course is, it doesn’t matter. Trump’s message isn’t actually about the past, it’s about the future of this country: Who will live here, and how? Who will have power, and how? Will the fact that white people will be minority in America change the power structures within our social, cultural, political and legal institutions? These are the questions that Donald Trump is aiming to answer, and these are the fears he is so effectively stoking.
A cornerstone of Trump’s stump speech is the characterization of undocumented immigrants as criminals. At a recent speech in Mobile, Ala., he invoked the "rapist immigrant" once again as he beseeched his audience to understand his position, telling them, “A woman, 66, was killed, raped, sodomized, by an illegal immigrant. We have to do something." Of course, it is entirely possible that an undocumented immigrant committed such a crime, despite the lack specifics in Trump’s speech. The statistics however tell us a different story about undocumented immigrants and crime. In the past 30 years, across all major American cities and throughout the country as a whole, the rates of violence crime and property crimes have dropped, even as the rates of undocumented immigration has increased. Not to mention that several studies demonstrate that immigrants are less likely to be criminals than those born in the U.S.
But facts are rarely the driving force behind Mr. Trump’s claims. They always come second to fear-mongering. The truth is that undocumented immigrants are often targets of crime, and yet they are less likely to report those crimes. While Mr. Trump often mentions the women raped by undocumented immigrants, the facts tell us that undocumented women are disproportionately targeted for rape and sexual assault.
Archi Pyati, Director of Policy and Programs at Tahirih Justice Center explains the phenomena:
“Your employer can manipulate you,dramatically underpay you, give you no time off, tell you to keep your mouth shut about workplace abuses such as sexual harassment and assault, and use other tactics to violate your basic human rights and human dignity simply because you don’t have a work permit and fear calling the police because of your immigration status. Labor trafficking is rampant among undocumented women and there is a lot of overlap between that form of violence and many others, such as rape and assault."
Mr. Trump’s rhetoric has pushed his compatriots running for the GOP presidential nomination to join the anti-immigrant fray, and making the slur "anchor baby" a fixture of the 2016 campaign. Miriam Yeung, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, tells Salon about the dangers of the myth of the “anchor baby,” by reminding us that these lazy characterizations of who Asian and Latina immigrants,
“take extreme characterizations or rare cases and generalize them to entire communities in an effort to make immigrant women, particularly immigrant women of color, more foreign. Both perpetuate harmful stereotypes about all Latinas and Asians. We become un-Americanized and all of our contributions as breadwinners, small business owners, domestic workers and backbones of our communities get erased.”
There are devastating consequences of this anti-immigrant sentiment that the GOP is peddling. Immigrants, those with papers and those without them, are targets for racist violence. Immigrant women’s bodies become national battlegrounds. "We’ve already documented the targeting of pregnant women for deportation," Yeung says. "This rhetoric feeds into already overzealous interference with women’s reproductive lives."
The challenge to birthright citizenship, the perpetuation of false information about violent immigrants, and the assertion that his goal is to “make America great again” has nothing to do with immigrants, as it turns out. Trump is betting that this GOP primary might serve as a referendum on White nationalism and the fear of a brown America. His party’s primary has become a nationalism-off. In recent weeks, candidate after candidate is seen vying for votes of those conservative white voters who support Trump because he’s speaking to their demographic anxiety. And Trump may or may not be offering a plan to make America “great” again, but by focusing on deporting immigrants he’s telling them that he certainly wants to make it White again.