From the day he launched his presidential run, Donald Trump has been vocal about the dangers that criminals pose. But as the number of his associates convicted of federal crimes grows, a vivid double-standard appears. If migrants commit crimes, it is an existential threat to the nation. If his friends do, it is irrelevant or unjust.
When Iowa police announced that a migrant led them to the body of college student Mollie Tibbetts, it took the White House less than a day to tweet a slick video tying migrants to crime. The same day, President Trump distributed his own video: “We have tremendous crime trying to come through the border,” he said.
Compare that to the president’s response to news that his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort pleaded guilty to conspiracy to obstructing justice. In exchange for Special Counsel Robert Mueller dropping several charges, Manafort admitted to tampering with witnesses and participating in a money laundering scheme. Almost immediately, President Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, said this has “nothing to do with President Trump or the Trump campaign.” The next day, the president tweeted that Mueller is “highly conflicted.”
The president’s single-minded frenzy about migrants leaves him incapable of seeing criminal activity in his shadow. His longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to violating campaign finance laws. His former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and campaign adviser, George Papadopoulous, admitted to lying to the FBI. Manafort’s plea deal came a month after he was convicted of eight felonies.
The same week that Manafort was in federal court admitting to obstruction of justice, Trump’s Justice Department was issuing a decision about that very crime. Immigration law says that’s an “aggravated felony,” a mishmash of crimes that come with near-certain deportation. In an executive order signed one week into his presidency, Trump made aggravated felons a top law enforcement priority. Their presence in the United States, he claimed, is “contrary to the national interest.”
If the president’s associates aren’t aggravated felons, it’s just because they are United States citizens. It’s not because they are better than the people who the Trump administration has set its sights on.
On the contrary, the president has surrounded himself with people who are much worse than some migrants the government continues to harass. Consider a woman known in court records simply as Ms. Q. While Manafort was admitted his lies, she was fighting for her freedom—and her child. Fearing gang threats, last spring Ms. Q. fled El Salvador with her three-year-old son. Like so many other families, she came to the United States in search of safety. And like so many others, when she arrived in the United States, Border Patrol agents took her child away. “One morning, officers forcibly took a sleeping J. from Ms. Q.’s arms,” her lawyers told a federal judge. Federal officials have accused her of being a gang member, but there is no evidence that she has ever been convicted of any crime, they said. Yet six months after agents took her child away, she still hasn’t seen him.
The one week when Manafort was pleading guilty and Ms. Q. was trying to reunite with her son reveals the double-standard that the Trump administration applies to migrants. The president has surrounded himself with people prone toward crime. Despite that, he regularly fires off tirades about the crime that migrants commit. When Trump’s associates admit to crime, the White House downplays it. When migrants show up in the United States hoping to better their lives, Trump’s government searches for any excuse to make their lives harder. When Trump’s friends are convicted, he comes to their aid—sometimes, as he did with Arizona’s Joe Arpaio, with the power of a presidential pardon. When Trump’s favorite target, migrants, can be demonized, he is the first to fan the flames.
There is a silver lining to the Trump administration’s willingness to minimize criminal activity by the president’s friends while emphasizing—or inventing—criminal activity by migrants. The excessiveness that we are currently witnessing is an opportunity to reexamine the double-standard. For years, immigration law has pushed migrants into immigration detention and deportation for doing what citizens do. In Colorado, where I live, everyone can buy marijuana legally, but only migrants can be deported for it. On the border, we take away children from parents who would never have lost their kids had they been United States citizens.
Treating migrants differently from United States citizens is discrimination plain and simple. It is longstanding and often legally permissible, but let’s call it what it is. If the Trump administration’s extremism is jarring, let’s also acknowledge that he didn’t invent the double-standard; he just threw it into overdrive. Let’s reimagine Trump’s hypocrisy as an opportunity to begin the difficult conversation about treating migrants differently. Perhaps then we will stop asking of migrants what we don’t ask of United States citizens.
A version of this article first appeared in HuffPost on September 21, 2018 under the headline “In Trump’s America, “Law and Order” Only Applies to Certain People.”