In the year since the 2016 presidential election, one in five perpetrators of hate violence in the United States against various South Asian and Middle Eastern communities invoked President Donald Trump’s name, his administration’s policies or his campaign slogan during the attacks, a new report found.
The nonprofit group South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) released the report last week, which detailed increasing instances of hate violence and xenophobic political rhetoric from Election Day 2016 to Election Day 2017. The group documented more than 300 reported incidents targeting South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Middle Eastern and Arab communities during that period.
“It’s heartbreaking.” Suman Raghunathan, executive director of SAALT, told HuffPost. “When you have people literally saying or leveraging the ‘Make America Great Again’ campaign slogan as they are violently assaulting our community members ― that for me draws a direct connection in a way that could not be clearer.”
SAALT documented 213 incidents of hate violence ― a more than 45 percent increase compared to the year leading up to the 2016 presidential election. The levels of violence mirror those seen the year after the 9/11 attacks, with 82 percent of the hate violence and xenophobic political rhetoric now motivated by Islamophobia, the group said.
“When you have people literally saying or leveraging the ‘Make America Great Again’ campaign slogan as they are violently assaulting our community members ― that for me draws a direct connection in a way that could not be clearer.” Suman Raghunathan, executive director of SAALT.
Women who identify or are perceived as South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Middle Eastern or Arab represented 28 percent of the documented hate violence, the report noted. Sixty-three percent of the women targeted wore a hijab or head scarves.
Alongside the episodes of violence against these communities, SAALT looked at specific incidents of xenophobic political rhetoric, documenting 89 incidents it observed for the year, with 75 percent of those cases conveying anti-Muslim sentiment.
The report found that just over 40 percent of the xenophobic rhetoric came from white supremacist hate groups or individuals. The majority of incidents came from those in positions of political power, with about a third coming from either Trump or members of his administration, and another 22 percent associated with other elected officials and candidates. The remaining instances came from members of the media.
Among the incidents of xenophobic political rhetoric were Trump’s statements following the New York City attack in October that left eight people dead and 12 injured. The alleged perpetrator in the case, Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov, had legally immigrated from Uzbekistan and Trump tweeted that he’d “ordered Homeland Security to step up our already Extreme Vetting Program. Being politically correct is fine, but not for this!”
The president also said he’d end so-called “chain migration,” a term immigration restrictionists use to describe allowing immigrants to sponsor their family members to join them in the U.S. Immigration activists have long rejected the term, using “family reunification” instead.
″[The Trump administration] really operationalizes the divisive portrayal of all of our communities ― we’re being portrayed as others, as un-American, as terrorists, and as fundamentally out of step with ‘mainstream American culture.’” Raghunathan
While the rhetoric is troubling, it’s “really only a crucial and tragic portion of the problem,” Raghunathan said. The policies implemented and proposed under the Trump administration are even more alarming and reflective of this xenophobic sentiment, she said. She pointed to policies including the multiple iterations of the ban on immigration and travel from Muslim-majority countries and the termination of the Temporary Protected Status program for several countries.
″[The Trump administration] really operationalizes the divisive portrayal of all of our communities ― we’re being portrayed as others, as un-American, as terrorists, and as fundamentally out of step with ‘mainstream American culture,’” Raghunathan said.
However, Raghunathan noted that while attacks on South Asian, Muslim and other heavily immigrant communities have intensified under the Trump administration, policies from the Bush and Obama administrations paved the way for many of these policies.
She pointed out that following the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration implemented a series of policies that targeted the same communities. From the Patriot Act, which expanded the government’s authority to surveil Americans, to the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), a program for registering non-citizen visa holders, there were already existing policies that disproportionately targeted Arab and Muslim communities.
More than 80,000 men underwent registration under NSEERS and thousands were interrogated and detained. But the program failed to result in a single known terrorism-related conviction, according to a 2012 joint study by the Rights Working Group and the Center for Immigrants’ Rights at Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law.
For its part, the Obama administration championed the Countering Violent Extremism program, which provided grants to communities, religious leaders, law enforcement and other organizations to deter “at-risk” people from joining “violent extremist groups.” Civil liberties groups, including the Brennan Center For Justice, have argued that the program targeted Muslims and painted an entire community as suspects.
“The equation of violent extremism with Muslim communities in the U.S. really deepened and operationalized with the Obama administration,” Raghunathan told HuffPost.
Still, she said tensions in South Asian and other immigrant communities are running particularly high during the Trump administration, especially given its intensification of immigration enforcement.
The SAALT report argued that part of the current problem in addressing hate violence is that federal agencies are not properly addressing the issue or have underreported incidents. Citing a ProPublica report, the SAALT study noted that 120 federal agencies have not complied with mandates to submit hate crime data to the FBI.
“The current administration has shifted its focus away from holding law enforcement agencies accountable for documenting and addressing the hate violence our communities are facing,” the report said.
SAALT said that both communities and officials should take steps to combat hate violence and xenophobic political rhetoric, including by taking action against discriminatory policies like the travel ban, or passing legislation to end racial profiling.
The report also suggested that communities of color should form coalitions and participate in joint organizing, and that cities should implement bystander trainings to help build safe spaces for at-risk populations.