Bad Hombres, Good People and Being ‘Great’

President Donald Trump’s first executive action strengthens the ability of US immigration authorities to control “bad hombres”. It intensifies operations in Southwestern Border States and targets the most dangerous migrants for immediate removal, including repeat offenders, and those who have been convicted of immoral or drug-related offenses. Most of these deportees will be Latino.

This is not a radical shift in US policy. Just a few years ago the National Council of La Raza called Obama the “Deporter-in-chief” due to the alarming rate of Latino migrant deportations — most of them, however, were low-level offenders who posed little threat to society. But also, for much of our history the government has descended into barrios targeting the most dangerous and criminal Latinos, and removing nonthreatening people instead.

Since January we have seen an even greater acceleration of detention rates. These actions extend a long tradition of criminalizing Latino migrants. If we examine Trump’s comments he reveals how immigration enforcement preserves a White nation.

“We have some bad hombres here and we’re gonna get ’em out.”
— Trump, White House, February 2, 2017

Recent detainments show that the people being labeled as “bad hombres” and marked for deportation aren’t necessarily so. Washington ICE agents wearing battle gear raided a home in February, 2017 and arrested Daniel Ramirez-Medina, a 19-year-old student and DACA recipient. Upon interrogating him, agents discovered what they thought were “gang tattoos” and falsely reported that Daniel admitted to having gang ties. Since being detained Daniel’s DACA status has been revoked and he is currently undergoing removal proceedings.

Just because a cop thinks you’re a bad person don’t make it true. Tattoos alone don’t make you a gang member—most cops know that—but there are a lot of other ways they get it wrong. Falsifying evidence in cases against Salvadoran youngsters to facilitate their removal has happened before: the LAPD got busted for it. Living in a Mexican neighborhood is enough for Denver cops to suspect you of being a gang member. Teachers and cops in Oakland work together to label Latino students as gang members for wearing baggy clothes, for hanging out with perceived bad hombres, or for living where they hang out. Police in some places document people’s pictures and information into a database that other law enforcement agencies can access. And once you’re on file they can use almost any excuse to roust you on the street.

The US media and government have historically called for the repression of “bad hombres” because they threaten White society. As part of an early nation-building practice, Anglo settlers saw themselves as superior, both racially and culturally, to the settled Mexican population. US newspapers and government officials then, using rhetoric like Trump’s today, propelled Anglo settlers to claim California’s mineral-rich lands during the Gold Rush, so they systematically excluded, removed, and executed the Mexicans living there. Then Anglos began calling the Mexicans trying to take the land back “criminals”, “gang members”, and “bandidos”. Trump’s reference to Mexicans as dangerous, and specifically rapists, also bears some resemblance to “Birth of a Nation,” a 1915 film leveraging rape to stoke White fear and anxiety and thereby justify aggressive security measures against the accused rapist—a nonwhite hombre. Vigilantes help restore community order when they lynch him.

“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
— Trump, Arizona, June 16, 2015

Recent studies show that most Latino migrants are “good people” and don’t bring crime to the US. Crime rates are at a historic low at the same time that migrants are coming here in record numbers. They come here to work and support their families. They tend to be highly motivated as a result and don’t want to jeopardize that. They’re less likely to engage in crime than people who were born here. And cities with large migrant populations tend to be safer than those without them.

Nonetheless ICE has already begun targeting “good” migrants—or in this case, low-level offenders. Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, 35, leaves behind her husband and two children after being deported to Mexico. She had been convicted in 2009 of carrying false Social Security identification that she used for work. The court ordered her to submit to yearly check-ins with Arizona immigration authorities. At her most recent visit they suddenly deemed her prior conviction grounds for removal. Sara Beltrán Hernández, 26, fled domestic violence in El Salvador and was detained upon entering the US. She was receiving treatment in a Texas hospital for a brain tumor that was discovered during her detention. But after the order was signed ICE agents returned her to a Dallas detention facility to wait for her court date, where she could die without treatment. There are countless examples that suggest detaining non-serious offenders is a growing trend.

Trump’s ban only extends Obama’s executive actions, which resulted in the deportation of the largest number of “good” migrants in recent memory. More than 2.5 million people, mostly Mexicans and Central Americans, were deported during the Obama years. A third of deportees in 2013 were convicted of serious crimes, an equal number were convicted of things like illegal re-entry. The rest were split between convictions for things like driving drunk or having weed in their possession. As of 2016, most “priority removals” were undocumented people who had just arrived, not serious offenders. Trump’s exaggeration of the threat that Latinos pose to US society will only help justify further removals.

“To all Americans tonight… I make this promise to you: We will make America strong again. We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again. And we will make America great again!”
— Trump, Cleveland, July 21, 2016

I’m a criminologist and the son of Latino migrants so these issues hit close to home. If I’ve learned anything it’s that the US government routinely casts good people as bad hombres, and this makes me wonder what being “great” really means.

Trump’s order reinforces recent and historical trends in the increasingly criminal treatment of Latino migrants. From the Reagan-era through the Wars on Drugs and Terror, local police and Federal immigration agents have been working together to identify, arrest, and remove “criminal aliens.” First, they targeted repeat-offenders locked up in jails and prisons. Over time more people became eligible for expedited removal—drug law violators, suspected terrorists, and people returning after having been deported. Enforcement changed too. Now it’s normal to see cops wearing military gear raid homes all over the country.

Anti-Latino sentiments, believing that Latinos threaten White society, routinely justify immigration enforcement. This has been so whether Whites perceive that Latinos are taking jobs, bringing crime, or are just in the way. Government agents have rounded up and deported thousands of bad” Mexicans, mostly US citizens, to alleviate unemployment during the Great Depression, thousands of bad” Salvadorans to reduce crime after the 1992 riots, and thousands more “bad hombres” from barrios in Chandler and San Francisco to make room for boutique cafes and eateries with free Wi-Fi.

Relying on immigration enforcement to strengthen a White nation links us to a past we thought we’d left long behind. Theodore Roosevelt made claims similar to Trump’s during the First World War when he proclaimed “America for Americans” and rebuked hyphenated Americans as foreign threats. Both of these men want to maintain White Supremacy in the US, and Obama’s presidency hasn’t undone this project. We have only to look at Trump’s base of supporters in the Alt Right, the massive surge of White-perpetrated hate crimes, the new institutions that protect White interests, and the cabal of White capitalists in his cabinet, including a lawmaker with a record of suppressing minority civil rights claims, to be convinced of his intentions. Being a great nation means being a White nation again.

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