Donald Trump, Weslaco, Texas
Former President Donald Trump listens during a border security briefing with Gov. Abbott (R-TX) on June 30, 2021 in Weslaco, TX. Photo credit: © Brandon Bell via ZUMA Press Wire

Republicans like to use tragic examples such as the death of Laken Riley to support their immigration demagoguery, but their arguments do not hold up to scrutiny.

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If you’d ask the likes of former President Donald Trump, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), Sean Hannity, and any other right-wing talking head what they want from Santa Claus, they’d probably say: “An illegal immigrant killing a white sorority girl.”

Well, Christmas came early this year.

It’s tough to imagine how many high-fives were exchanged in the Fox News newsroom when word came out that Jose Antonio Ibarra would be charged with kidnapping and murdering Laken Riley, a 22-year-old nursing student at Augusta University, or how many tears of joy were shed by congressional Republicans, but the song “Cry Me a River” comes to mind.

Before we go on, the murder of Riley was a despicable act, and her killer should be held to account to the full extent of the law. 

So, this column isn’t about excusing or condoning any violent crimes.

What it is about, however, is the way Republicans and the right-wing media use isolated incidents to spur xenophobia by painting undocumented migrants as a bunch of murderous gang members with neck tattoos looking to harm wholesome American college students.

First, let’s look at the numbers.

A study released by the Department of Justice during the Trump administration that examined “uniquely comprehensive arrest data” from Texas found that “undocumented immigrants had substantially lower crime rates than native-born citizens and legal immigrants across a range of felony offenses.”

In addition, “relative to undocumented immigrants, U.S.-born citizens are over 2 times more likely to be arrested for violent crimes, 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes, and over 4 times more likely to be arrested for property crimes.”

You wouldn’t know this from watching Fox or listening to right-wing politicians, who’d rather have you believe that a bunch of “thugs” are “invading America” to come after white women.

Then there is the math.

According to Fox News, roughly 10 million undocumented migrants have entered the US since President Joe Biden took office.

Let’s go with that number. It would be foolish (and statistically impossible) to assume that all of these new arrivals would be law-abiding members of their community.

But let’s look, again, at Texas, since Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has turned the Lone Star State into a place as inhospitable as possible for the new arrivals… if they get past the barriers he ordered to be erected at the border.

Its largest city is Houston, which is home to 2.2 million people. About 6,000 of them are victims of violent crimes each year. And, while the city saw a massive decline of 20 percent in homicides last year, there were still 339 murders.

(By the way, this is also not something you’ll learn from Fox, but murders in the US as a whole were down nearly 10 percent in the first half of 2023, which means the country is not the crime-ridden dystopian wasteland people like Trump will have you believe.)

Now, if you quadruple Houston’s numbers (to get close to the 10 million figure), then they should have killed more than 1,500 people and been the perpetrators of about 25,000 violent crimes. But there is no evidence this is happening.

And that’s precisely why Trump and the right-wing media focus on isolated incidents.

The actual numbers make sense, of course, because migrants have an incentive to keep their heads down and not run afoul of the law, which could result in deportation.

There is, by the way, a legitimate area of concern because in some of these cases that the right is highlighting it appears that the perpetrators were apprehended at some point but later let go.

The reasons why they were released are certainly worth discussing, and those are more pertinent than immigration per se. That the right does not focus more on these questions is evidence of their lack of true concern over public safety, as are recent efforts by Trump and Congressional Republicans to torpedo a Senate deal on border security.  

The rest, however, is just fear-mongering and stoking distrust. 

That is, of course, a common tactic of the right. Before every election, there is breathless talk of caravans of illegals” looking to flood the southern border, and Fox News is eager to provide the corresponding images. Then, once the votes have been cast, these caravans vanish from its news coverage altogether.

That’s what we are seeing now. Immigration will be one of the most important issues of this election, and Republicans have identified this as one of two areas (the other is inflation) on which they can hammer Biden.

That explains the dueling visits to the border of the incumbent and his predecessor this week, during which Trump casually pointed out that he had spoken with Riley’s parents.

In the world of politics, this is what we call a “stunt,” not a demonstration of true concern. The former president has shown on many occasions that he has the empathy of a coconut.

To him and these other Republicans, Riley is now just a tool.

In life, she deserved better than to become the victim of a violent crime.

In death, she deserves better than to become a cause célèbre for right-wingers.

Unfortunately, her life was cut short and, instead of being allowed to rest in peace, she has become a pawn in a game of political chess following her murder.

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