Ed Gillespie ran for governor of Virginia.
Ed Gillespie partook in racist fear-mongering.
Ed Gillespie lost.
Ed Gillespie was given a fellowship at the Institute of Politics.
During the 2017 Virginia gubernatorial election, Gillespie’s campaign ran a television advertisement that blasted his opponent, Ralph Northam, for being the deciding vote “in favor of sanctuary cities.” Next to a picture of Northam were three tattooed Latino men. The men, the ad claims, are members of MS-13, a Salvadoran gang that has been responsible for a number of high-profile homicides in Virginia. Northam is to blame for the rise of the terrifying gang members shown in the ad.
A minor problem: the men pictured were not members of MS-13 at all. They were not even in the United States. The picture was taken in a prison in El Salvador, and the gang members belonged to Barrio 18, a completely separate gang. The advertisement prioritized shock-value over accuracy. Research shows that sanctuary status does not increase crime rates, making Gillespie’s campaign strategy nothing more than a disingenuous appeal to the fear of Virginia voters. Instead of appealing to voters with solutions, he catered to their innermost anxieties. Immigrants in Virginia were caught in the crossfire. Instead of being acknowledged as the soul of their communities, immigrants were smeared as gang members and criminals.
On the surface, a failed gubernatorial candidate who peddles in xenophobia does not seem like a productive person to teach Harvard students, in his IOP study group, about “[t]he processes through which ideas become public policy.” Undoubtedly, his tactics do not deserve the sense of honor that comes with a Harvard fellowship. But, for today’s GOP, nativist rhetoric that scapegoats immigrants is just another part of the party’s playbook. Ed Gillespie was just following the lead of his party’s leadership.
In July, President Donald Trump gave a speech to Long Island law enforcement, in a region that has been dealing with a very real problem with MS-13. Instead of focusing on the specific issue of gang violence, he used a sensationalized version of the problem to justify his broad immigration policy. Trump claimed that MS-13 had “transformed peaceful parks and beautiful, quiet neighborhoods into bloodstained killing fields.” He argued that his wall, restrictions on immigration, and a harsher immigration policy than Obama (who deported more than 5.2 million people) would solve the MS-13 issue.
In fact, his immigration policy has done a lot to terrorize immigrant communities and little to eradicate MS-13. In 2017, ICE arrested 68,346 individuals for non-DUI traffic violations and 62,517 others for immigration related reasons. 1,886 individuals were arrested for homicide, only a percentage of whom could be linked to MS-13. More than ten percent of arrests were of individuals with no known criminal charges or convictions.
ICE has also arrested multiple American citizens and is attempting to destroy records documenting the abuse immigrants experienced while in custody, including instances of sexual assault and death. In short, enforcement policies target a much broader net than just gang members. They rip apart families, foster mistrust between law enforcement and the people they serve, and do not adequately fix the problems they claim to.
Ideas do become policy, and politicians’ baseless ideas about MS-13’s relationship to other undocumented immigrants has led to inhumane immigration policy. Ed Gillespie and the rest of the Republican Party must defend the way their campaigns have mixed fear and racism to garner votes, especially since their rhetoric’s damage outweighs its benefits.
Gillespie—with the help of Trump, Senator Tom Cotton '98, Stephen Miller, and company—has tried making resentment against immigrants an acceptable way of winning elections. A discussion of whether or not he is culpable of perpetrating white supremacy, fear-mongering, or xenophobia is beside the point now. It is not likely that the Institute of Politics will rescind his fellowship. After all, they tolerated Sean Spicer’s blatant dishonesty and Corey Lewandowski's constant misogyny.
It’s even less likely that a rogue question during a Q&A session will force Gillespie to atone for his sins. That makes it too easy for him to offer a politically calculated answer that sounds good but says nothing substantial. Instead, Gillespie’s liaisons should push him on the more unsavory moments of his campaign and organize a session dedicated to criticisms of his campaign. They should dedicate time to exploring the way politicians think and talk about undocumented immigrants, especially during election season.
Racist fear-mongering is not a fringe issue—it has become embedded in the fabric of the GOP’s political strategy. It’s critical that, short of rescinding their offer, the Institute of Politics push Gillespie to seriously address the way fictions about immigrants are being used to further political goals. The issue must be treated as the main affair, rather than a peripheral side-show.
Immigrants are the ones that pay for political recklessness. Asking that politicians, who constantly play with their fates, explain themselves is the bare minimum.
Ruben E. Reyes Jr. ’19, a former Crimson Editorial Chair, is a History & Literature concentrator in Leverett House.
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