I stand by @dandrezner, even if he doesn’t

by Eric on April 12, 2017

Yesterday Dan Drezner said it was embarrassing that US Attorney General Jeff Sessions called illegal aliens “filth.” Today Drezner apologized, because while the word “filth” was in prepared remarks, Sessions didn’t say it, and because even in the prepared remarks, “The context is clear: Sessions was going to use ‘filth’ to describe MS-13 and drug cartels, not all illegal immigrants crossing the border.”

While I admire Drezner’s forthrightness in admitting a mistake I think he has made another one. He should make only the first half of this apology, because, in fact, the context is not clear—as, I can only suspect, is indicated by Sessions’s decision not to say the word aloud.

Here is the disputed part of Sessions’s prepared remarks.

Here, along our nation’s southwest border, is ground zero in this fight. Here, under the Arizona sun, ranchers work the land to make an honest living, and law-abiding citizens seek to provide for their families.

But it is also here, along this border, that transnational gangs like MS-13 and international cartels flood our country with drugs and leave death and violence in their wake. And it is here that criminal aliens and the coyotes and the document-forgers seek to overthrow our system of lawful immigration.

Let’s stop here for a minute. When we talk about MS-13 and the cartels, what do we mean? We mean criminal organizations that turn cities and suburbs into warzones, that rape and kill innocent citizens and who profit by smuggling poison and other human beings across our borders. Depravity and violence are their calling cards, including brutal machete attacks and beheadings.

It is here, on this sliver of land, where we first take our stand against this filth.

Note the sentence I have placed in bold. It follows the sentence about the gangs and cartels. It refers to a class of persons other than the cartels: we know that because it begins with “And.” The class of persons to whom it refers is “criminal aliens and the coyotes and the document-forgers seek to overthrow our system of lawful immigration”. That class seems to me clearly to be the class of people whom Drezner yesterday called ordinary “illegal immigrants”—not the cartels.

Referring to the much larger class of people who cross the border unlawfully in the middle of a set of sentences about much greater criminals, and then declaring an intent to stop such “filth,” creates an ambiguity as to whether the filth refers only to the cartels, or to the other immigrants referenced in the passage.

It is possible that such ambiguity is unintended. I do not know who writes Sessions’s speeches, much less what is in their minds.

I suspect, though I cannot know, the ambiguity, and its inflammatory effect, was clear to Sessions, which is why he omitted the word “filth” in speaking.

As an exercise for the reader, I will suggest working on a proposed comparison: the ambiguity in Sessions’s prepared remarks sounds similar to this one:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

The work of Sessions’s speechwriter echoes this older, but still well remembered, elision between “good people” and those “bringing crime.”



Patrick 04.12.17 at 11:03 pm

The sentence you highlighted doesn’t specifically address “ordinary” undocumented immigrants and I don’t think it can be read as referring to them, as the next paragraph makes clear. The highlighted sentence refers to only one class of undocumented immigrant–criminal aliens–before then referring to two classes of criminals (US, Mexican, it doesn’t matter), coyotes (people-smugglers) and document forgers. The next paragraph makes this limitation clear by referencing specifically the work of coyotes alongside that of drug smugglers and other criminals.

It’s criminal aliens, and other criminals (immigrant or not), that seems the fairest referent for “filth” in the sentence that follows these two paragraphs.

Of course I don’t know anymore than you about what could have been meant or intended when the speech was written. To me, however, I don’t see any reference to the broad undifferentiated class of undocumented immigrants, and taking these paragraphs together and actually assessing the language used I think Drezner’s contextual point is quite sound (even if we apparently don’t agree on whether the broader class of undocumented immigrants was included in the sentence you highlighted).


Dr. Hilarius 04.13.17 at 2:42 am

No one should make the mistake of attributing good intentions to Sessions or resolving ambiguity in favor of decency. His entire career stands in opposition.


cwalken 04.13.17 at 7:25 pm

@Patrick: wouldn’t that be “alien criminals” then? Sessions has been clear that he thinks all undocumented immigrants are criminals.


Sashas 04.13.17 at 7:48 pm

@Patrick 1
I see two potential interpretations of “criminal aliens”. The first, the intersection of two categories (aliens and criminals), I believe to be more sound from the perspective of good writing style. The second interpretation, that of one category (aliens) and a second category painted on top for emphasis (criminals), seems to be more in line with the rhetoric I have heard from others who use the term.

In support of the second interpretation, I would point to the crime that they are accused of: “they seek to overthrow our system of lawful immigration.” If I were to ask who’s guilty of that particular crime, I imagine I would get many people who answer that undocumented immigrants–all of them–are the guilty party.


Patrick 04.14.17 at 6:38 pm

@Cwalken & Sashas,

You may be correct–I practice immigration law, and usually when I use or hear the term “criminal aliens” it’s meant to denote the class of aliens who would be removable because of criminal convictions / have committed (non-immigration) violations of the criminal law. So when I read that, my reaction was that the broad class was immediately circumscribed by the use of the phrase “criminal aliens,” and so the subsequent references could not be a description of all undocumented aliens.

Sashas–to your additional point, the “overthrow” language to me was like aider & abetter talk directed at the coyotes and document forgers, that by their actions they are undermining the legal system. The obvious extension of that is what you note–that all undocumented aliens to an extent undermine the existing system, and so they are as “complicit” in the purported overthrow. But I didn’t read it that way. My reading of the three classes was more limited, and I think fair, even though there are other possible interpretations.

But my final point remains, that I think Drezner’s clarification was warranted given these ambiguities (although, again, to me, using some of this language frequently and with a fixed definition, I thought this part of the speech was clear).


Chet Murthy 04.15.17 at 7:21 am

Oh for Pete’s sake. This is -ridiculous-. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions isn’t a genius, and he doesn’t write his speeches (or (ahem) have them written by Stephen Miller) for clarity. He’s dog-whistling, and to an audience that doesn’t diagram the bloody sentences in order to understand them. It’s *crystal clear* that when he says

And it is here that criminal aliens and the coyotes and the document-forgers seek to overthrow our system of lawful immigration.

he’s NOT referring to the criminal gangs from the preceding sentence. He’s talking about undocumented aliens. And why is this crystal clear? Because “criminal aliens” is in the same sentence as “coyotes and document-forgers”. For pete’s sake, remember who’s talking here — and to whom he’s addressing himself.

P.S. And no, he doesn’t get any “benefit of the doubt”. The man was -born- with a pointy cape on his head, and we should all remember that.


Manta 04.15.17 at 7:49 pm

Seems to me the standard rant against “human traffickers” so en vogue in Europe. But I may be deaf to dog-whistles.


Barry 04.16.17 at 12:07 pm

Seconding Chet. To riff off of (or simply to rip off) D-Squared, the primary error that liberals make is the give the benefit of the doubt to people who’ve worked long and hard to earn an evil reputation.

Pin this to the wall: every single cabinet-level Trump person is either already evil, will earn an evil reputation, or will resign/be fired early.

Please learn *something* from the Dubya Debacle.


Chaz 04.17.17 at 12:47 am

He jumps straight from “MS-13 . . drugs . . .death . . . violence” to “criminal aliens . . . coyotes . . . document forgers”, then back to “MS-13 . . . rape . . . kill”.

He is clearly lumping all these things together.

Remember when George Dubya would give a speech about terrorism and just happen to mention Saddam Hussein twenty times, and then he would give a speech about Saddam Hussein and just happen to mention September 11 fifty times? And people talked themselves hoarse saying, “Oh no, Bush never said Saddam Hussein sponsored terrorism. Read his speech, he never said it!”

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