President Donald Trump caused outrage at an event last week when he called members of the MS-13 gang "animals," spawning think pieces about the humanity of criminals from critics and supporters alike.
Now the administration is doubling down on the language: the White House website posted an article on Monday repeatedly referring to the primarily Central American members of the gang MS-13 as “animals.”
Titled “What You Need To Know About The Violent Animals Of MS-13,” the article asks “what” and “why” about the gang, whose official name is Mara Salvatrucha. The word “animals” is used 10 times throughout the post.
“Too many innocent Americans have fallen victim to the unthinkable violence of MS-13’s animals,” it begins before launching into a description of crimes allegedly committed by its members.
“In Maryland, MS-13’s animals are accused of stabbing a man more than 100 times and then decapitating him, dismembering him, and ripping his heart out of his body,” the post reads. “Police believe MS-13 members in Maryland also savagely beat a 15-year-old human trafficking victim. The MS-13 animals used a bat and took turns beating her nearly 30 times in total.”
To finish, the White House declares, “President Trump’s entire Administration is working tirelessly to bring these violent animals to justice.”
Trump first used the word to describe the members of the gang during an event on immigration on May 16, in which he told attendees, “These aren’t people. These are animals.”
He defended the statement the following day, telling a reporter, “When the MS-13 comes in, when the other gang members come into our country, I refer to them as animals. And guess what — I always will,” according to the New York Times.
The president’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, told reporters she supported the characterization, adding she didn’t think it “goes far enough,” The Hill reported.
MS-13 originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s, consisting of members primarily from El Salvador and its surrounding countries. As Vox points out, the context of this political focus on immigrants as criminals matters: “From Trump’s inauguration to the end of 2017, ICE arrested 45,436 immigrants without criminal records.” In contrast to the 16% ICE arrest rate of non-criminal immigrants during Obama’s last year, every month since July 2017 has seen an arrest rate between 32 and 40 percent of non-criminals. (Vox also notes that the current administration “is still deporting fewer non-criminal immigrants than the Obama administration did circa 2011.”)
Trump’s depiction of certain people of color as “animals” — even in the context of crime — was disturbing to many who wondered about the real risk of the dehumanization of immigrants. Luis Videgaray, the Mexican Foreign Minister quickly condemned Trump’s use of the term “animals,” telling Mexican network Televisa, “President Trump referred to some immigrants — perhaps he had criminal gangs in mind, I don’t know — as animals, not as persons. In the opinion of the Mexican government, this is absolutely unacceptable.”
According to the Marshall Project, it doesn’t take a lot for an immigrant to be labeled a gang member: law enforcement has labeled high schoolers as members of the MS-13 gang for “doing things like wearing an El Salvador soccer jersey, being observed in the presence of other alleged gang members or writing El Salvadoran area codes in their notebooks.” ICE has refused to comment on the ACLU lawsuit, but did say that “individuals can be identified as a gang member if they meet two of eight criteria, which include wearing gang clothing or frequenting places known for gang activity,” the Marshall Project reports. A November 20th California federal district court order requires that “the teenagers be given notice of the reasons for their arrests, access to the evidence being offered against them, and a prompt hearing in front of a judge, in which the government would have the burden to justify their detention.”
Trump will travel to Long Island on Wednesday for an immigration event in which he’s expected to speak about the removal of MS-13 members, the New York Post reports. Gang violence has reportedly plagued Suffolk and Nassau counties, but immigration advocates say that ICE has used the issue to wrongfully identify members of the immigrant community as part of MS-13 and take them.
[Photo: Northern Virginia Gang Task Force officers partner with ICE officers to arrest several alleged MS-13 gang members in Manassas, Virginia on August 10, 2017. By Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images]