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Opinion: Trump's 'Illegals Voting' Comments are False and Divisive

Trump's comments about losing the popular vote because millions of "illegals" voted is not only patently false, but irresponsible and prejudiced.
Image: President Trump Holds Listening Session With Business Leaders
President Donald Trump delivers opening remarks during a meeting with business leaders in the Roosevelt Room at the White House on Jan. 23.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

He just can’t let it go. At a meeting with congressional leaders on Monday night, President Donald Trump questioned the legitimacy of the 2016 election. According to Trump, he would have won the popular vote if 3 million to 5 million “illegals” had not voted.

His suggestion of rampant voter fraud by undocumented immigrants is patently false and the lie was immediately debunked by news outlets. Still, on Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that Trump stood by this assertion. And on Wednesday, Trump tweeted he would ask for a major investigation on voter fraud, despite the lack of any evidence to support his assertion and some court findings that "fraud prevention" measures states have adopted, such as requiring voter IDs, have suppressed access to the polls of Latinos and other minority groups.

What cannot be overlooked in the uproar over these false statements is the president's choice of words. “Illegal” is an inaccurate and indefensible way to describe undocumented immigrants. This is not a question of political correctness or semantics. It is a matter of law – and basic human decency. The term is not only offensive - it happens to be wrong.

One of the founding principles of the American justice system is the presumption of innocence. That's why even if a criminal act is caught on camera reporters refer to the person as the "alleged suspect." Only a judge or jury can decide, after weighing the circumstances and evidence, if a person is guilty. By referring to a (mythical) group of people as “illegals,” Trump is appointing himself as judge and jury and trampling on the due process guarantees of the 5th, 6th, and 14th Amendments of the Constitution.

In fact, the only person who can pass judgment on the immigration status of another person is an immigration judge. Politicians and journalists do not have this right. Neither do police officers or other law enforcement officials. That Trump is assuming such a prerogative indicates an astonishing level of arrogance and ignorance.

It might surprise people to know that being here without authorization is not a crime. As the Supreme Court noted in U.S. v. Arizona (2012), “as a general rule, it is not a crime for a removable alien to remain present in the U.S.” Being in the country without proper papers is a civil offense, not a crime, unless the person has been previously deported and returns without permission. (Illegal entry is a misdemeanor or can be a felony under certain circumstances.)

In recognition of this reality, news outlets like The Associated Press, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, NBC News, and ABC News have stopped referring to people as “illegal” or “illegal immigrants.” These organizations have likely realized that calling people “illegal” is imperfect at best and dehumanizing at worst. Among the 11 million undocumented people in the U.S., for example, are refugees, asylum seekers, and victims of sex and human traffickers. They do not deserve to be tagged with a phrase that implies criminality.

In his election night victory speech, Trump promised to be “president for all Americans.” Really? Then he should know that nearly half of Latinos find the term “illegal” offensive. A poll by Fox News Latino found that 46 percent of Latinos took issue with such language. How disheartening that our new president is throwing around a slur that has been linked to racial profiling, hate speech, and even violence.

At the most human level, it is mean-spirited to reduce a person to being “legal” or “illegal.” Most people would probably agree that it would be unkind to call Martha Stewart, Mark Wahlberg, Tim Allen, or Wesley Snipes “illegals.” Yet they all have criminal records. If we are unwilling to use such a negative phrase on a celebrity, shouldn’t we think twice before tossing it onto a group of people that includes thousands of children?

It is especially troubling that Trump, who made illegal immigration a central issue of his campaign, would speak so callously about the vulnerable people whose futures may be directly impacted by his administration. Once again he is scapegoating immigrants, and by extension Latinos, this time for a problem that doesn't even exist.

Ironically,Trump himself has a history with those he might call “illegals.” NBC News has noted that Trump Tower got its start with undocumented foreign workers. The First Lady’s immigration history is murky too; during the campaign, Trump promised a press conference to discuss allegations about his wife working in the U.S. without proper legal permission when she was a model in the 1990s, but that never happened. So maybe people who live in White Houses shouldn’t be throwing stones.

Not only is Trump wrong in his claims of voter fraud, but his use of the term “illegal” is divisive and irresponsible.

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