Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes ofwebsite accessibilityICE blames 'political rhetoric' for violence against offices as immigration tensions rise | WJLA
Close Alert

ICE blames 'political rhetoric' for violence against offices as immigration tensions rise

A window was damaged by gunfire at a building housing ICE offices on Aug. 13, 2019. (WOAI/KABB)
A window was damaged by gunfire at a building housing ICE offices on Aug. 13, 2019. (WOAI/KABB)
Facebook Share IconTwitter Share IconEmail Share Icon
Comment bubble

Although authorities have not yet determined who fired gunshots at two Immigrations and Customs Enforcement offices in San Antonio, ICE officials are already assigning some blame to the activists and politicians who have stirred up outrage at the agency for its role in implementing President Donald Trump’s immigration agenda.

"Political rhetoric and misinformation that various politicians, media outlets and activist groups recklessly disseminate to the American people regarding the ICE mission only serve to further encourage these violent acts," ICE San Antonio Field Office Director Daniel Bible said in a statement hours after the incidents, which occurred around 3 a.m. Tuesday.

Shots were fired into a building that houses ICE offices and another one nearby where an ICE contractor is located. No one was hit, but at least one office had federal employees in it at the time. Officials say the shooter appeared to know exactly which floors ICE was on, but it is not clear if they expected anyone to be inside.

"If this was an act of protest or a political statement, maybe they thought the building was empty. But you never know when a building is empty, right?" FBI special agent in charge Chris Combs said at a news conference.

This was at least the fourth act of aggression directed at ICE offices since early July. Protesters outside a facility in Aurora, Colorado pulled down an American flag and raised a Mexican one in its place on July 12. Two days later, a self-described anti-fascist apparently tried to set an ICE facility on fire in Tacoma, Washington. On July 16, nearly a dozen protesters were arrested for unlawfully entering ICE offices in Washington, D.C.

At a time when many Democrats say President Trump bears some responsibility for a mass shooting in El Paso allegedly driven by anti-immigrant anger—"Americans were killed because you stoked the fire of racists,” 2020 presidential candidate Julian Castro said in a television ad directed at Trump Wednesday—some Republicans maintain anti-ICE rhetoric by prominent Democrats like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is encouraging violence on the left.

“Since AOC accused the men and women of ICE of running ‘concentration camps,’ ICE facilities in Tacoma, Washington and San Antonio, Texas have been targeted,” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel tweeted Tuesday night.

Ocasio-Cortez is one of many Democrats who have lashed out at ICE in recent months over the treatment of migrant families detained at the southern border and undocumented immigrants swept up in raids inside the country. She and others have called for the agency to be abolished.

Protesters in Aurora and D.C. did appear to reference Ocasio-Cortez’s description of immigrant detention centers as concentration camps, a characterization that angered many Jewish groups. As new allegations have emerged about deaths in ICE and Border Patrol custody and inhumane conditions in facilities housing migrant children, some Democrats have argued the terminology is distressingly accurate.

ICE provoked fury from the left last week with raids on agricultural processing plants in Mississippi that rounded up more than 600 workers suspected of being in the country illegally. Many were later released, but coming days after a terrorist act targeting immigrants, critics saw it as an attempt to victimize a vulnerable population further.

“These raids have separated hundreds of people from their families and are causing people in our country to be in fear—in particular, the Latino community,” Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris said on Twitter. “It shows a level of callousness that should not be a trait of the president of the United States.”

Democratic Rep. Lloyd Doggett, whose district includes part of San Antonio, was among the first political leaders to denounce the gunfire directed at ICE offices.

“I strongly, consistently, and unequivocally condemn violence, which is unacceptable against ICE or anyone else with whom we disagree,” Doggett said in a statement.

Former Republican Rep. Bob Barr argued Democrats have gotten a “free pass” for not offering such an explicit repudiation of left-wing violence in response to other incidents and not acknowledging their role in the collapse of civility in politics.

“For too long, Democratic political leaders – including the many currently vying for their party’s 2020 nomination – have been allowed to address the violence infecting contemporary American society by not addressing it, and piously pointing the finger of blame at Trump,” Barr wrote on Wednesday.

However, experts who study political violence and rhetoric caution against drawing an equivalence between the El Paso mass shooting and the ICE attacks or the extent to which politicians may have inspired them.

“To my knowledge, none of ICE's prominent critics are calling for or excusing violence,” said Nathan Kalmoe, an assistant professor of political communication at Louisiana State University who is working on a book about mass partisanship and political violence. “That contrasts sharply with President Trump's rhetoric on immigration and politics generally, in which he frequently makes light of violence by his supporters and falsely characterizes refugees as a violent invasion demanding action.”

President Trump explicitly denounced white supremacy and violence last week, but critics point to a long history of statements minimizing or encouraging aggression against his opponents and vilifying undocumented immigrants as an infestation undermining the fabric of the nation.

“You have Trump and the Trump administration who have the biggest bullhorn in the country, if not the world... On the left, you can definitely see some inflamed comments and rhetoric, but there’s no single body making those statements,” said Jason Del Gandio, author of “Rhetoric for Radicals: A Handbook for 21st Century Activists” and an associate professor at Temple University.

Conservatives have often cast the anti-fascist movement, or antifa, as the leftist equivalent of white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Antifa activists have been responsible for many incidents of violence and chaos in recent years, but Del Gandio argued a loose affiliation of masked anarchists cannot be compared to the president of the United States.

“Antifa doesn’t have a Twitter account with millions of followers. Antifa isn’t on the White House lawn giving press conferences... The magnitude of the rhetoric is simply not parallel,” he said.

Acts of political violence can also motivate each other. Joseph Young, chair of the justice, law, and criminology department at American University’s School of Public Affairs, said it would not be unusual for a mass shooting by an adherent of right wing ideology to inspire retaliatory violence from the far left.

“Most of the time in the U.S., when we’ve seen pretty radical actions on one side, we’ve often gotten radical responses from the other,” he said.

Although ICE officials in San Antonio cast blame on political leaders on the left, acting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ken Cuccinelli downplayed the link between political rhetoric and violence, at least with regard to the El Paso shooting. He noted another mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio the same weekend was perpetrated by an apparent supporter of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, though authorities have not found evidence that shooter was motivated by his political views.

“I don't think it helps us in trying to address what brings a person to that kind of murderous evil, whether it's in El Paso or whether it's in Dayton, to try to generalize from one person what's going on in a whole country,” Cuccinelli said in an interview with Sinclair’s Boris Epshteyn.

Cuccinelli—who has drawn anger this week from immigration advocates for a new policy that would bar legal immigrants who receive public benefits from obtaining citizenship—also rejected the premise that the Trump administration is anti-immigrant, stressing that the number of citizens naturalized annually has increased under Trump.

“We're about growing the American economy in our nation in a way that creates opportunity, not just for the people coming in, but for the Americans who are already here. It isn't race-focused. It isn’t ethnic-focused. It is opportunity- and America-focused,” he told Epshteyn.

Even before El Paso, most Americans feared the current political environment would fuel violence. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in May found 78% of adults believe elected officials using heated language about certain people or groups makes violence against those people more likely. Almost three-quarters of respondents said public officials should avoid using such language because it could encourage violence, including 83% of Democrats and 61% of Republicans.

“The Global Terrorism Database and Southern Poverty Law Center data do indicate upticks in terrorism and hate crimes respectively,” said Erin Kearns, an assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Alabama.

There is some evidence politically motivated violence is increasing in the U.S., and according to Kalmoe, social science research suggests President Trump’s rhetoric has played a role in that.

“Observational studies and experiments show that Trump's language causes a systematic rise in hate crimes and hate speech against minority groups,” he said. “The psychology of moral disengagement also shows how adopting the president's rhetoric makes it easier to consider harming the minority groups he disparages.”

Violence against political enemies is not an exclusively pro-Trump phenomenon, though. In addition to the attacks against ICE facilities, a Bernie Sanders supporter opened fire on a Republican baseball practice in Virginia two years ago and there have been several instances reported of people being assaulted for wearing “Make America Great Again” hats around the country.

“He inflames the worst in both parties,” Young said of Trump, though he noted similar patterns have been seen in other countries where nationalist, populist leaders have taken power.

Amid the finger-pointing and recriminations this week, there has been little sign political rhetoric surrounding immigration or anything else will be toned down in the near future. Law enforcement officials in Portland, Oregon are steeling themselves for potentially violent clashes in the streets between far-right and far-left groups this weekend.

“To anyone planning to commit violence during demonstrations in Portland scheduled for Saturday, August 17, 2019, you are not welcome here,” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said in a statement Tuesday. “If you choose to commit violence, you will face legal consequences.”

Experts stress it is difficult to draw a direct line of causation from one person’s words to another person’s actions, but they say political leaders and activists still have a role to play in lowering the temperature of the national dialogue.

“We would all benefit if everyone took responsibility for improving the productivity of our dialogue,” Kearns said.

Calibrating rhetoric to communicate the stakes of the political debate and change people’s minds without dangerously demonizing the other side is easier said than done, though.

“Rhetoric is supposed to have consequences. That’s why you engage in rhetoric, to influence other human beings,” Del Gandio said.

Calls for violence should be unacceptable in a democracy, Kalmoe said, but so should racist and dehumanizing characterizations of immigrants.

“Vilifying rhetoric can make it easier to rationalize hurting other people,” he said. “The political challenge is that we don't have a democracy if we can't criticize bad or immoral policies.”

As extreme as tensions seem at times, Young observed the country has been through far worse. Incidents of political violence the U.S. has seen in the last few years are tragic, but nothing has occurred even close to the scale of the race riots of the 1960s or the Civil War.

Comment bubble

“For the people who say the sky is falling, they’re having a short memory about the turbulent history we have in our country...,” he said. “This isn’t 1968 and it certainly isn’t 1861, but we’re moving in a direction that’s unsettling.”

Loading ...