As Tuesday night’s State of the Union address approaches, one likely theme of the speech has become quite clear: President Donald Trump wants to choke off legal immigration to the United States.
He came to the presidency with an ingrained belief that foreigners and immigrants threaten our national security, but the facts have always stood in his way. Attempting to find alternative facts to support the Trump administration’s preferred immigration policies, the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security recently issued a report that brazenly manipulates numbers and cherry-picks statistics to bolster Trump’s prejudices.
It is easy to criticize the dishonesty of the report, but we need to also recognize that it reflects, in exaggerated form, biases that have been part of U.S. counterterrorism discourse through at least the past three administrations. In that sense, Trump and his xenophobic cohort have done us a favor — peeling back the layers, allowing us to directly confront the misguided assumptions that have driven policy for far too long.
The report’s primary takeaway — that three-quarters of those convicted of terrorism or terrorism-related charges were foreigners or immigrants — was quickly trumpeted in a presidential tweet. Attorney General Jeff Sessions reiterated its findings in a speech Friday, too. The report was swiftly (and rightly) criticized for being misleading, since it focuses exclusively on one part of the threat landscape — international terrorism — while ignoring domestic terrorism. But the report was based on the only official list of terrorism cases maintained by the Justice Department, itself limited to those categorized as “international terrorism.” This myopia is not new: The department focuses the bulk of its resources on cases that have a foreign connection, no matter how remote, and plays down attacks that have a singularly American face.
While there is no particular crime of politically motivated domestic terrorism, the Justice Department clearly has the ability to quantify terrorism, either because the offense charged is defined as terrorism or based on the conduct involved. To start, the department could look to the data maintained by U.S. attorneys, which shows that from 2001 there have been 1,441 federal indictments for domestic terrorism-related offenses, and 736 for terrorism-related offenses classified as international.
Parsing this data will probably show a significant amount of violence by white supremacist groups and the like. An April 2017 analysis by the Government Accountability Office found that in recent years, 73 percent of terrorism fatalities were caused by “far right wing extremists.”
For the past decade, the DOJ has played down this type of violence, ensuring that Americans perceive terrorism as mainly a foreign and Muslim phenomenon. It also has systematically exaggerated the scale of the latter. While the average American would imagine a terrorism conviction to relate to a bombing or mass shooting, the majority of terrorism cases on the DOJ list are for providing “material support” to a foreign terrorist group. Some of these charges are surely serious, but others have covered more ambiguous activities, including those not intended to support terrorism. In fact, about half the convictions on the list are not terrorism at all, but rather “terrorism-related” -- i.e., for crimes ranging from lying to the authorities to selling untaxed cigarettes, which started life as a terrorism investigation.
The narrative that mass attacks are a Muslim problem has been fractured by the regular occurrence of mass shootings and the increasing prominence of avowed white supremacists in our political landscape. Even the FBI has had to adjust. According to its director, the bureau has about 1,000 active investigations into domestic terrorism.
But the Trump administration is determined to ignore the complexity of the threat and to keep the focus on immigrants and Muslims because that suits its nativist agenda.
A key way in which the recent report does this is by dividing Americans into those who were born citizens and those who were naturalized. Stymied by data showing that even most of those convicted on international terrorism charges are Americans, the administration decided to reach back into family histories to find foreign connections. Five out of eight of the cases highlighted by the report involve individuals who came to the United States to join family members. Family reunification is a long-standing priority of our immigration law, which the Trump administration has sought to paint as scary “chain migration” that allows hordes of foreigners to come into the country.
Naturalized Americans can lose their citizenship in certain limited circumstances and cannot run for president. Beyond that, there is no basis in the Constitution or law to divide Americans based on whether they are born or naturalized citizens. National security law, such as the statutes and orders governing surveillance and the FBI’s investigative guidelines, distinguishes between “U.S. persons” (a category that includes all citizens and generally also encompasses permanent residents) and “aliens.” Of course, U.S. policy has often departed from these sound principles of equality. Indeed, the assumptions underlying the Trump administration’s report are not that different from those used to justify the World War II internment of Japanese Americans: the idea that Americans a generation or two removed from immigrants were not real Americans, but rather retained the undiluted “racial strains” of their ancestry.
While the United States has repudiated this shameful episode in our history, Trump himself refused to rule it out as an appropriate response to security threats, and some lawmakers have enthusiastically pushed unconstitutional and overly broad citizenship-stripping bills for suspected terrorists.
We all know that the president is no fan of Muslims and wants to keep them out of the country. The report therefore also attempts to quantify “honor killings,” an issue that bears no relation to terrorism but is a barely coded reference to supposedly barbaric Muslim practices. Any doubt as to motive is settled by the report’s attempt to quantify forced marriage and female genital mutilation in the United States. Neither has anything to do with terrorism or is particularly Islamic, although it is portrayed that way by the anti-Muslim crusaders who influence the White House. Unfortunately, these views are not limited to a few fringe elements. Portraying Muslims as dangerous and uncivilized has a long pedigree, from efforts to pass legislation against the nonexistent threat of sharia law to stances taken by the FBI and the Defense Department, both of which have used training materials perpetuating negative stereotypes about Muslims.
Despite this recent history, many have criticized the Trump administration’s xenophobic statements and policies as un-American. They are countered by those who point out that racism and bigotry are as American as apple pie. Both are, of course, right. Turning our image of ourselves into reality requires facing our biases and ensuring they do not infect policy. The Trump era gives us an opportunity to do so. We must not waste it.
Faiza Patel is co-director of the liberty and national security program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.