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The American right is criminalizing immigrants

In Trump’s February 28th address to a joint session of Congress, he announced the creation of a new office in the Department of Homeland Security, VOICE — Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement — which will track crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. The announcement elicited gasps of horror from the Democrats in the chamber as anger reverberated around the internet. And then, in a media atmosphere saturated with Trump’s ridiculous claim of Obama wiretapping Trump Tower, VOICE was almost forgotten. But VOICE and what it stands for — a focus on the criminality of specific groups — has a long fascist history, and terrifying modern parallels.

Nazi Germany focused heavily on the supposed “criminality” of the Jews. Neues Volk magazine published the regular series “The Criminal Jew,” which published photos of Jews and the crimes they supposedly committed. The Nazi paper Der Stürmer encouraged readers to send in reports of crimes committed by Jews, which they then published. Romani (gypsy) people, like my great-grandmother’s family, were systematically murdered in the Holocaust alongside the Jews because they were seen as criminal “vagabonds.”

Jews and Romani were described as roving bands of criminals that didn’t belong in Germany; the parallels with today’s hysteria towards undocumented Latino immigrants are clear. Six million Jews and half a million Romani were murdered in the Holocaust, a series of events set in motion by Nazi publicity of and focus on the “criminal” stereotype. And now, seven decades later, anti-Semitism and antiziganism (prejudice against Roma people) are on the rise in Europe again as anti-Semitic crimes make headlines in the United States.

When Trump referred to “what’s going on in Sweden” during his Florida rally, he was (obliquely and ridiculously) referring to a documentary he’d seen a clip of on Fox News the night before about immigration in Sweden. The documentary filmmaker Ami Horowitz was making the argument common among the Breitbart crowd and Sweden’s version of the alt-right that Sweden is facing a rape and murder crisis caused by refugees. Horowitz’s evidence for a “murder spree” is based on statistics that show there were 12 more murders in 2013 than 2012. That’s right, this “murder crisis” is about Sweden having 87 murders in 2013 versus 68 murders in 2012. It’s not a very dangerous place.

Ruining the alt-right’s specious argument, however, is the fact that 2013’s number pales in comparison to the sky-high murder rate of 2010 (before the refugee crisis), when Sweden experienced a whopping 91 murders. Sweden does have the highest number of reported rapes in Europe; this is not because of immigrants, but because they have a culture that encourages women to report, a relatively expansive definition of rape, and a different method of counting rape reports.

In the United States, if a woman reports that one man raped her 100 times, that counts as one report. In Sweden, that’s 100 reports. None of these facts get in the way of Swedish and American conservatives inventing a rape and murder crisis and blaming immigrants for it. Focusing on the supposed criminality of Arab Muslim immigrants and refugees is helping the far-right gain power — the Swedish Democrat (far-right nationalist) Party has tripled in size in the past four years and is now the third largest party in the country.

Breitbart, the right-wing rag whose former editor is now the senior adviser to the President, maintains a tag on their website called “Black crime,” which was deleted from the front page only when Breitbart started to gain mainstream attention. “Black on black crime” is, of course, a racist concept. Nobody ever talks about “white on white crime,” or the fact that most crime in America occurs where the perpetrator and the victim are of the same race. “Black on black crime” is a common refrain among the far-right, used to create the perception that Black people are inherently more likely to commit crime. This stereotype of Black criminality is used to justify the school to prison pipeline, police brutality, and defunding social programs that primarily benefit Black people.

People who want to destroy pluralist democracy do so by arguing that a specific group is somehow fundamentally unfit for society. That group has changed many times in American history alone. During World War II, racist Americans argued that Japanese people were unfit for democracy. Today, we frequently hear that Muslims cannot peacefully coexist in our society because their religion commands them to turn every country into a caliphate under sharia law. Of course Japanese people can live in democracies, Muslims can peacefully coexist with non-Muslims, and undocumented Latino immigrants are less likely than the rest of the population to commit crimes.

The specifics of the lie are less important than its larger intent. It doesn’t matter if the victims of the criminal stereotype are European Jews and Roma, Syrian Muslims, Japanese Americans, or African Americans, the intent is the same — to justify repression and mistreatment of a minority at the hands of the government. This focus on the supposed criminality of a group of “undesirables” has led to discrimination, imprisonment, deportation, internment, and even systematic mass murder. Trump’s VOICE program is nothing new — it is part of a long, sordid tradition that leads to atrocity.

Photo: Jonathan McIntosh/Creative Commons