The Information Wars Series: Law operates as it is applied to a set of facts. Policy is likewise made in response to or anticipation of a set of facts. While facts are often reasonably in dispute, good policy and sound application of the law require a willingness to engage with facts. Indeed, fruitful debate about legal principles and policy judgments often emerges only when we can agree—or stipulate to—the facts. Yet the Trump administration has attempted to subvert or conceal data in a range of policy areas: from police violence, to LGBTQ rights and protections, to climate change. In this series, we analyze the spheres in which the administration is undermining essential data, the prerequisite to sound—and democratically accountable—policymaking and to the protection of fundamental rights.
In this series, we’ve analyzed the administration’s efforts to bury information that runs counter (or might run counter) to its policy objectives, or lack thereof. Thus far we’ve highlighted policies that could be chapters in the President’s next book, “The Art of the Denial”: the administration’s disappearance of facts, which might ensure that it won’t be called upon to solve a problem.
Here we turn to a distinct way of waging war on information that is still very much related to the administration’s other battlefronts—the phenomenon of disinformation. To promote its anti-immigration agenda, the administration has announced its intention to establish the Victims of Immigrant Crime Engagement (VOICE) Office, which will compile and publicize information about crimes committed by immigrants.
On January 25, President Trump signed an executive order titled “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States.” (From the title alone, one might reasonably expect the order to take on gun violence or something that is actually a real epidemic that threatens public safety. But sadly, no. It’s about immigrants.) The executive order declares that sanctuary cities “willfully violate Federal law in an attempt to shield aliens from removal from the United States.” Beyond its dubious conclusory legal declarations, the order directs a variety of information gathering and publication efforts.
First, the order directs Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to create an office dedicated to victims of “crimes committed by removable aliens,” and mandates that the office “provide quarterly reports studying the effects of the victimization by criminal aliens present in the United States.” The order likewise directs the Department of Homeland Security to use the Declined Detainer Outcome Report to issue weekly reports listing “criminal actions committed by aliens and any jurisdiction that ignored or otherwise failed to honor any detainers with respect to such aliens.” The order also directs the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Attorney General to provide quarterly data on the immigration status of all those in federal, state, or local custody. In February, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly issued a policy memorandum implementing the President’s order.
The reporting mandated by the President’s order has several distortions baked into it. For example, by relying on the Declined Detainer Outcome Report the reporting will falsely imply that sanctuary cities pose a broader public safety threat. Moreover, in reality, as Politico has highlighted, the bulk of the crimes documented in the Declined Detainer Outcome Report are non-violent offenses. The reporting won’t do a darn thing to give the public accurate information about public safety. The reporting is nothing more than a mouthpiece for broadcasting particularly heinous crimes in order to induce the kind of moral panic that contributes to mass incarceration.
The suggestion behind VOICE and the order’s related information-broadcasting provisions is ultimately that rampant immigrant crime is itself a grave threat, a problem deserving of greater public resources and of the information collection and telegraphing capabilities of the federal government. Attorney General Jeff Sessions made this point explicit in a memorandum directing federal prosecutors to prioritize all “immigration offenses,” and in remarks to a group of border patrol agents at the U.S.-Mexico border. Sessions’ prepared remarks to that group stated, in reference to criminal gangs like MS-13, that “It is here, on this sliver of land, where we first take our stand against this filth.” Sessions dropped “against this filth” from the remarks he actually delivered—a point Daniel Drezner, whose tweet on the subject went viral carefully corrected. But highlighting the criminal actions of a few to suggest all unauthorized immigrants pose this threat seems to be part of the administration’s overarching tactic.
The Trump administration’s views on immigration betray even basic facts. Most obviously, immigrants commit crime at a lower rate than non-immigrants. Even if the President had a genuine law-and-order objective (which his raids on courthouses suggest he does not), his limited resources would be more wisely spent elsewhere.
Instead, the administration’s statements and policies on immigration are a classic vilify-and-scapegoat tactic. Offer decontextualized information, lurid details of tragic anecdotal crimes, and cast them as representative of the entire scapegoated group. This has been the President’s modus operandi since the first moment of the campaign, when he rode sideways, waving and giving his signature thumbs up, down the gilded escalator at Trump Tower to declare in his campaign kickoff that Mexican immigrants are the forbearers of rampant U.S. crime: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Some, he assumes.
The President isn’t the only one to fallaciously inflate anecdotal information. Iowa Representative Steve King has as well. King was most recently in the spotlight for a tweet arguing that the United States “can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” (The tweet, like so much disinformation, is misleading and false—babies born in the United States are our babies, and they have been since the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified.)
Just this month King was at it again, tweeting about a murder investigation that has focused on three Central American gang members illegally present in the United States. King wrote: “Three more ‘Dreamers.’ One more grave. Every day it gets worse.” The suspects, of course, weren’t dreamers—the category of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children and for whom the Obama administration instituted an enforcement deferral program. But facts and reality are beside the point—the whole point of the disinformation tactic is to stir up anti-immigrant sentiment and cast all immigrants as criminals by any means necessary.
Lest we be accused of partisan bias for wanting data on police violence, climate change, and gun control and not wanting it on immigrant crime, the issue is not that the administration is providing information. The issue is that the administration is manipulating the public through inaccurate or misleading information. As far back at 1931, the executive branch took on a comprehensive study of crime among foreign-born people living in the United States. Its conclusion? “That in proportion to their respective numbers the foreign born commit considerably fewer crimes than the native born.” And study after study has confirmed that finding.
VOICE will most likely publicize heinous anecdotal information, meant to stir animosity, and while those anecdotes will be tragic, they will deceive the population into thinking allowing immigrants into this country increases crime. And the “data” the administration will publish will be inaccurately skewed based on its source.
The administration might want to consider renaming VOICE “The Ministry of Truth.” It has all the trappings of an office of dystopian propaganda; the administration might as well make it explicit.