Andres Oppenheimer

Immigrant families don’t “infest” America — but Trump’s racist rhetoric does

Tuesday, President Trump continued his tirades against undocumented immigrants, tweeting that they wanted to ‘infest’ America.
Tuesday, President Trump continued his tirades against undocumented immigrants, tweeting that they wanted to ‘infest’ America. Getty Images

After President Trump’s latest tweets, there should be no doubts about it: His escalating tirades against undocumented immigrants have nothing to do with immigration and everything with exploiting the racial anxieties of people who want America to be a whiter country.

Amid the scandal over Trump’s policy of separating immigrant children from their asylum-seeking parents and putting unaccompanied minors in cages — a policy he ended by executive order Wednesday, under pressure — the president tweeted Tuesday that immigrants “infest” this country, as if they were animals carrying infectious diseases.

Historians and linguists were quick to remind us that, throughout history, dehumanizing people was the first step toward some of humanity’s worst atrocities.

“For anyone familiar with Nazi history — the exhibit of “Degenerate Art,” the film “The Eternal Jew” and the persistent campaign to paint Jews as vermin or animals, and certainly not human — the word “infest” is not only remarkable, but terrifying,” wrote columnist Aviya Kushner in the Jewish website Forward.com.

Nazi literature often depicted Jews as rats who were “infesting” Europe, she wrote.

Trump has been trying to dehumanize undocumented immigrants since the first day of his campaign, when he falsely claimed that most Mexican immigrants are “criminals” and “rapists.”

He was appealing — successfully, it turned out — to millions of Americans who resented that America has become blacker, browner and more Asian. At the time, many of us suspected that his slogan “Make America Great Again” really meant “Make America White Again,” but it was largely speculation.

But since then, Trump’s intentions have become crystal clear. He — and his de facto propaganda machine, Fox News — are constantly escalating their anti-immigrant rhetoric. Trump not only tacitly endorsed neo-Nazi groups when he said that there were “very fine people on both sides” of a clash between neo-Nazis and anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, but has also referred to Central American and African nations as “shithole countries”.

Most recently, he referred to immigrants as “animals,” although White House officials later clarified that he was referring to MS-13 gang members.

Like many populist demagogues, Trump is trying to inflame racial passions to energize his supporters to go vote in November’s congressional elections. He needs a motivated base to intimidate Republicans in Congress into remaining loyal to him and prevent them from eventually voting for his impeachment if the Russia investigation leads to a congressional vote.

The fact is, illegal immigration is at its lowest levels in 10 years, despite a relative increase in recent months.

Apprehensions at the U.S. southern border, which are often used as a measure of illegal immigration flows, has plummeted from 1.7 million in 2000 to 310,000 last year, according to U.S. Border Patrol statistics.

In addition, the U.S. economy has been improving steadily for several years, and unemployment has reached its lowest levels in recent history. In fact, there is a need for immigrants in many corners of the U.S. labor market right now.

So why is Trump demonizing foreigners when unemployment is at record lows? There’s no better explanation than exploiting the racial fears of many Americans.

“For the first time in U.S. history, whites are on the verge of losing their status as the country’s majority,” writes Yale professor Amy Chua in the current issue of the Foreign Affairs magazine.

Citing a 2011 study showing that more than half of white Americans believe that whites have become the primary victims of discrimination, she adds that, “When groups feel threatened, they retreat into tribalism. They close ranks and become more insular, more defensive, more focused on us versus them.”

At the beginning of his administration, when I criticized Trump’s anti-immigration rants, many Trump supporters would send me angry emails claiming that, “We are not anti-immigration, we’re anti ILLEGAL immigration.”

Well, they are not saying that anymore. The pretense is over. Trump has since vowed to deport “DREAMers” who were brought to this country as infants, and is even considering proposals to deny green cards to some legal immigrants and their children.

By now, it’s crystal clear: Neither the border wall nor the separation of immigrant children from their parents has anything to do with an immigration debate. They are all about racist populist demagoguery.

Watch the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show Sundays at 8 p.m. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera

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