Trump's 'animals' comment on undocumented immigrants earns backlash, historical comparisons

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President Trump on Thursday pointedly referred to undocumented immigrants as "animals" in a statement his critics say betrays a gross misunderstanding of the plight of people who came to the United States illegally, and beyond that, little sympathy for them.

During an immigration roundtable at the White House with administration aides, political leaders and California law enforcement officials, Trump said his administration was deporting undocumented immigrants who commit violent crimes.

“We have people coming into the country — or trying to come in, we’re stopping a lot of them — but we’re taking people out of the country, you wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals.”

When it comes to undocumented immigrants, you don’t always know which Trump you are going to get. The same president who encourages attendees at his rally to chant “build that wall” also pledged to approach those who illegally immigrated to the United States as children with "great heart."

The Post's Robert Costa points out this isn't the first time he's used the term in an illegal immigration context.

More recently, during a March news conference for the signing of a spending bill, Trump said, "I can tell you this, and I say this to DACA recipients, that the Republicans are with you. They want to get your situation taken care of. The Democrats fought us. But I do want the Hispanic community to know and DACA recipients to know that Republicans are much more on your side than the Democrats, who are using you for their own purposes.”

And that comment came about two months after Trump reportedly expressed his frustration with staffers while discussing the protection of immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries as part of a bipartisan immigration deal.

"Why are we having all these people from s---hole countries come here?" Trump asked, according to several people at the meeting, referring to countries mentioned by the lawmakers.

Since Trump launched his presidential campaign calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “murderers,” he has attracted scorn and praise for his hard-line immigration policies.

But while his critics previously called his policy proposals inhumane, these recent words caught on tape display how lowly Trump views those who commit crimes after arriving in the United States illegally.

This would not likely be a problem for much of Trump’s base. The president campaigned on a law-and-order platform, regularly providing examples of undocumented immigrants committing horrific crimes. To many of his supporters, honoring the humanity of individuals who behaved so inhumanely is not a priority.

But those who want to see the president take a more compassionate approach on immigration see statements like this as conflating the minority of undocumented immigrants who get involved with criminal activity with the "dreamers" and other law-abiding immigrants.

There's important historical context here too that many social media users pointed out: Referring to marginalized groups as subhuman has been a way dictators have justified the abuse of those groups. This happened with the Jewish people during the Holocaust. It happen with the Tutsis doing the Rwandan genocide. And it is currently happening with the Rohingya people in Burma.

Generalizations and stereotypes led many citizens of those countries to view entire ethnic groups of people so negatively that respecting their livelihood was of little priority. This empowered people to discriminate against or even physically harm them.

That's a scary evocation, but more practically in the near term, Trump's rhetoric will be fodder for his opponents as his party hurtles toward a midterm where many of its endangered members will be saddled with Trump's words.