(Indianapolis Star, March 7, 2017)
Some have suggested that President Donald Trump’s recent speech before Congress offered a more conciliatory and collaborative tone than previous pronouncements. But tone does not override content. Particularly egregious was Trump’s call to the Department of Homeland Security to establish VOICE, Victims of Immigration, Crime Engagement, a program that would focus on crimes committed by illegal immigrants. During the speech, Trump recognized four people whose loved ones had been killed by immigrants. Certainly, our sympathies go out to all who have lost loved ones. But Trump’s message was ideologically tainted by the claim that violent crime in America is the result of an irresponsible immigration policy. This initiative is eerily reminiscent of 1940s Germany, where “immigrants” (Jews) were singled out and listed as criminals.
Is it true that immigrants are killing us? As of March 1, the number of homicides was 2,745. There were 1,878 people murdered by guns and 239 killed due to domestic violence incidents. Most of these violent crimes were perpetrated by native born American citizens. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, closing our borders, building walls and deporting thousands of immigrants will not solve our crime problem.
Advocating on behalf of immigrants, documented or not, has nothing to do with being “soft,” or a so called “bleeding heart liberal.” It has to do with facts, hard facts. Immigrants to the United States are significantly less likely than native-born citizens to commit crimes, and undocumented immigrants, even less so.
No refugee who has come to our country, whether from Syria or any other place in the Middle East, has been implicated in a major fatal terrorist attack since the Refugee Act of 1980 set up systematic procedures for accepting refugees into the United States. How many foreign born terrorists who have come to the United States as refugees have killed anyone on American soil? None. That’s right: Zero. Those are hard facts.
On the other hand, we have witnessed extraordinary violence from domestic extremists. Hate groups continue to flourish and are emboldened. The American radical right, according to the latest count by the Southern Poverty Law Center, grew from 784 in 2014 to 892 in 2015 — a 14 percent increase. We need only remember Charleston, S.C. and the massacre of nine black church goers by a white supremacist to be cognizant of the imminent dangers that lurk within our own borders.
Mosques are being threatened, more than 100 Jewish Community Centers nationwide have received bomb threats, cemeteries are being desecrated and LGBT churches and youth are being targeted. Children from Muslim, Jewish, Hispanic and African American families are being harassed in schools. Gun violence continues to kill nearly 13,000 Americans per year.
Among those sitting in the audience as Trump addressed Congress, there should also have been victims of hate crimes and family members who have lost loved ones to gun violence. Meanwhile, our own Indiana General Assembly refuses to pass a Hate Crimes Law and continues to strengthen gun ownership laws.
Our government has an obligation to keep us safe. But unless we acknowledge what truly threatens us, we will spend resources frivolously and fail to create the programs that will protect us. Throughout history, alarmist stereotyping has fabricated false fears that have led whole countries to do unspeakable acts. It is the responsibility of our leadership to help us discern the difference between irrational and rational fear, between truth and falsehood.
Fanning the flames of hate makes us less secure, not more so.
Dennis Sasso is senior rabbi at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis. Sandy Sasso is senior rabbi emerita of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck and director of the Religion, Spirituality and the Arts Initiative at Butler University.