Column: Trump’s ‘Angel Families’ weaponize their grief to demonize immigrants


In a presidency — in a career — marked by grotesque spectacle, few moments beat the news conference that President Trump held last Friday with “Angel Families” for tackiness and rank opportunism.

Trump had, two days earlier, grudgingly signed an executive order to stop separating kids from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. At the news conference, Trump tried to flip the narrative back to his America First worldview. He talked about children, all right — but those killed by “criminal illegal aliens.”

Behind him were the mothers and fathers of 11 such victims. Angel Families, Trump called them. They held poster-size photos of their slain offspring that Trump — for reasons known only to him — thought it appropriate to autograph.


Then, as usual, he lied, rattling off numbers that he claimed proved immigrants illegally come to this country to kill and rape and steal. His statistics were of dubious provenance, easily debunked by numerous studies that show those in the country illegally commit crimes at a lower rate than citizens do.

“You know, you hear the other side,” he said, mocking the children caged in detention centers. “You never hear this side. You don’t know what’s going on.”

Actually, we do know exactly what’s going on. Trump isn’t the first politician to surround himself with Angel Families. For the past quarter century, GOPers from school boards to the White House have pointed to victims of crimes committed by immigrants to justify travel bans, border crackdowns, ICE raids and the denial of any pathway to citizenship for so-called Dreamers, refugees or basically anyone else.

Justice is not characterizing everyone without a green card as a monster here to prey on innocents.

Trump has claimed these Angel Families as his own. He has paraded them out in front of rallies since his candidacy. It’s a caravan of causticity that passes itself off as a living, breathing Pietà.

I have sympathy for their loss — no one should lose a loved one to homicide. But any goodwill dissolves when such families weaponize their grief. These parents don’t appear at political rallies to inveigh against murder investigations gone cold or lax gun laws. They’re there to demonize immigrants. Period.


Angel Families use their self-anointed moral authority like a Captain America shield to deflect any criticisms or fling against all enemies. More than any other advocacy group, Angel Families have prevented the United States from realizing any sort of immigration reform. All they have to do is show up at a rally or Capitol Hill and pro-immigrant advocates scurry away, unwilling to take them on. In Trump, they found their mirror image, an illogical fool who also will make sweeping, inaccurate generalizations to push an agenda that hurts millions.

This parlor game has a long, ugly history in California. It started with Steve Woods. In 1993, his friends got into an altercation with a group of Latinos in a beach parking lot in San Clemente. Woods was killed after one of the Latinos threw a paint roller into the Chevy Suburban where he was a passenger, a vehicle that just happened to be racing toward them.

The metal rod of the paint roller went through Woods’ skull in what investigators initially called a “fluke” accident. But Kathy Woods, Steve’s mother, let anti-immigrant activists use a grisly X-ray of his skull at rallies to rebrand his death, in her words, as “carnage” caused by “invaders,” words now used by Trump to describe our current border situation. The activists went on to write Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot initiative that became the template for virtually every anti-immigrant law passed in the United States since.

The next poster child for Angel Families was Jamiel Shaw II. In 2008, a gang member mistook the prep football star for a rival Blood (partly because the teen was wearing a red backpack and a red belt) and murdered him. Jamiel’s father aligned himself with conservative radio hosts to push for the end of Special Order 40, the rule that forbade Los Angeles police to ask someone about their legal status. He was among the Angel Families who spoke at the 2016 Republican National Convention to rail about open borders. Trump was “sent by God,” Jamiel Shaw Sr. proclaimed, because he would “build the wall.”

The Angel Families victim of the hour is Kathryn Steinle, killed in San Francisco three years ago by a stray shot fired by a man with multiple previous deportations. Anti-immigrant activists claim San Francisco’s sanctuary policies protected Steinle’s killer. The argument echoes that of Kathy Woods, Jamiel Shaw Sr. and others: American citizens would still be alive if only the United States didn’t have such allegedly loose borders.

That’s a logical fallacy that begs bizarre questions: Is murder committed by a legal resident or citizen somehow more acceptable? Would they push for an anti-citizen policy?

I’m not asking these families to suffer in silence. They deserve justice. But justice is ensuring that killers serve their time in prison and then get deported. Justice is not characterizing everyone without a green card as a monster here to prey on innocents, or asking all such people to suffer because of the actions of a few. That’s cruelty. That’s Trumpian. If xenophobic, nasty actions is what Angel Families want as the legacy of their loved ones’ deaths, then that’s on them.

Twitter: @GustavoArellano