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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

The Trump Administration and the Rhetoric of Genocide

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If you go to the White House's official website, you will see this article: "What You Need To Know About The Violent Animals Of MS-13." The article claims that the "violent animals of MS-13 have committed heinous, violent attacks in communities across America." Indeed, the two-page article uses the term "animal" in reference to MS-13 gang members a total of 10 times. What to make of this?

The path of dehumanization always ends at the same place.

On the one hand, there is no doubt that MS-13 is a violent, criminal gang, that causes great misery in many communities, especially in Central America, but also in the U.S. I've met and represented many individuals who were victims of this gang. My clients have been attacked by machetes, shot, raped, threatened, and had family members murdered. For victims of MS-13, no language can adequately express their disgust and anger towards the gang.

But here, we are not talking about victims. We are also not talking about over-heated pundits on cable news. We are talking about the United States government. And when the United States government, and our President, refers to people--even criminals--as "animals" that is not simply hyperbole. It is a dangerous step towards fascism and genocide. And I do not mean this in any metaphorical or rhetorical way. Dehumanizing people--even bad people--has historically been a first step towards mass murder.

President Trump's characterization of MS-13 gang members as "animals" reminds me of the Rwandan government's rhetoric prior to the 1994 genocide. Tutsis were referred to as "cockroaches." At the time, Rwanda was involved in a civil war, which pitted the Hutu-majority government against the Tutsi-majority rebels. The Rwandan government had reasons to speak ill of Tutsi rebels, and certainly those rebels were no angels. However, the demonization and dehumanization of the enemy went well beyond the rebel soldiers--it extended to all Tutsis.

In the same vein, perhaps the strong language against MS-13 can be justified. After all, many gang members have committed vicious crimes. But just as rhetoric against Tutsi rebels ultimately harmed innocent Tutsi civilians, the impact of the President's words will stretch well beyond members of the MS-13 gang. Here's more from the White House website--

Recent investigations have revealed MS-13 gang leaders based in El Salvador have been sending representatives into the United States illegally to connect the leaders with local gang members. These foreign-based gang leaders direct local members to become even more violent in an effort to control more territory

So does this mean that all people from El Salvador are suspect? Are they all "animals"? And when we are selecting people for dehumanization, how do we know where to stop? How do we know who is actually a member of the gang? What about people forced into the gang who are trying to escape, or people who simply look like gang members (whatever that means), or former gang members? Where is the due process in the dehumanization?

And if you think that mere words are not dangerous, or they can be dismissed as "Trump being Trump," let's remember how the Nazis engineered the mass killing of millions of Jews and other "undesirables" during World War II. From the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum--

Exploiting pre-existing images and stereotypes, Nazi propagandists portrayed Jews as an “alien race” that fed off the host nation, poisoned its culture, seized its economy, and enslaved its workers and farmers. This hateful depiction, although neither new nor unique to the Nazi Party, became a state-supported image

The Nazis portrayed the Jews as a threat to the Fatherland. Jews were not people; they were aliens. There was even "evidence" for the threat: Some Jews were wealthy; others were Marxist. These vile stereotypes existed long before the Nazis, but when they were adopted by the German government, they led to genocide.

In our own time, many commentators and activists have been dehumanizing non-citizens. These modern-day blood libels have always been disgusting and disgraceful. But when the President and the U.S. government get into the act, it raises the danger to a whole new level. And we are seeing that play out now, most recently in the government's decision to rip apart parents and children who arrive at the border seeking asylum (in many case from--ironically--MS-13). Could we tear families apart and separate children from their parents if we viewed these people as human beings? This is dehumanization in action, and the harm it will cause is very real.

Let's not mince words about what is happening here. The White House, the President of the United States, and the U.S. government are referring to human beings as "animals." And when governments negate the humanity of people--even people deemed undesirable--it puts us on a path where the only destination is death. All of us have a responsibility to bring back humanity and decency to our country. Let us resolve to do what we can before it is too late.

Originally posted on the Asylumist:

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  1. ImmigrationLawBlogs's Avatar
    Thank you for this excellent comment, Jason. Whether our field is asylum, removal or skilled worker visas, as in most my work, every lawyer, every immigrant and every American should share the utmost concern about Trump's reversion to the "animals", "vermin" mentality toward immigrants that characterized the Nazi genocide of the Jews and other extermination campaigns in both historical and modern times.

    I say this despite the fact that Trump is obviously ont anti-Jewish and certainly does not support genocide or mass murder of anyone. But his attempt to demonize any class of immigrants as criminals who are less than human can lead to the most dangerous consequences.

    This is the language of despots, not democrats.

    And, even more horrifyingly, Trump continued his demonizing and dehumanization of Latino and other darker skinned immigrants in a "Roundtable" with a group of sycophantic federal and local low enforcement officials who fawned over him for his "great leadership" in attacking MS-13, which everyone knows is only a metaphor for all Latino immigrants.

    My comments on this latest exercise in authoritarian-style hate mongering are at:

    Roger Algase
    Attorney at Law
    Updated 05-23-2018 at 07:07 PM by ImmigrationLawBlogs
  2. ImmigrationLawBlogs's Avatar

    You acknowledge that gangs like MS-13 are doing terrible things, but you don't show much concern for the threat they pose. Your concern is over the threat that you think the use of politically incorrect language can have. You conclude with the observation:

    "The White House, the President of the United States, and the U.S. government are referring to human beings as "animals." And when governments negate the humanity of people--even people deemed undesirable--it puts us on a path where the only destination is death. All of us have a responsibility to bring back humanity and decency to our country. Let us resolve to do what we can before it is too late." ("and the U.S. government"? What other government officials are using that term?)

    That seems to be quite a stretch to me. In any case, even if it is a real possibility, which I strongly doubt, I am much more concerned about the threat that violent gangs pose to our country.

    Did you study the gang threat when you were working on your article? I think you might have shown more concern for that threat if you had known more about it...and for the victims of their crimes. I suspect that most of the victims are immigrants. Try reading the FBI's Gang Report.

    It is available at

    Nolan Rappaport
    Updated 05-23-2018 at 10:33 PM by ImmigrationLawBlogs
  3. ImmigrationLawBlogs's Avatar
    Jason, you might find this study interesting.

    Can Elites Shape Public Attitudes Toward Immigrants?: Evidence from the 2016 US Presidential Election

    René D Flores

    Social Forces, Volume 96, Issue 4, 1 June 2018, Pages 1649–1690,

    27 April 2018

    Article history


    It is well known that political elites can shape public attitudes toward policies and values. Less is known, however, about whether elites can also influence public perceptions of social groups they praise or denounce. I test this by analyzing the attitudinal effects of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign announcement speech, in which he referred to Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “criminals.” First, to provide causal estimates, I analyze survey data using a counterfactual approach. I find evidence that Trump’s statements negatively affected public opinion toward immigrants particularly among groups with restrictionist tendencies. Second, using a panel survey experiment, I corroborate this causal relationship but find that these effects are short-lived. This explains why restrictionist politicians like Trump constantly prod natives to keep their messages’ effects from dissipating. I also find that only negative messages are consequential and find no evidence that elite statements are more impactful than those from non-elites, suggesting that the power of elite rhetoric lies primarily in its capacity to reach the masses via the news media.
    Issue Section:
    Original Article

    Nolan Rappaport
  4. JDzubow's Avatar
    Hi Nolan - I think it is possible to be concerned about the gang threat without referring to gang members as animals. One has nothing to do with the other. I am concerned about the gang threat - and as I mentioned, I have had numerous clients harmed by the gang. I am also concerned when the president uses the same type of language as used by mass murderers. It is possible to take a very strong stand against gangs while at the same time not indiscriminately labeling and dehumanizing people. Take care, Jason
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