Trump puts murdered women and girls center stage in anti-immigration drive

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Minutes before going on stage for the first presidential debate on Thursday, Donald Trump received a phone call from the mother of 12-year-old Jocelyn Nungaray, who was killed in Houston this month, allegedly by two Venezuelan men in the US illegally.

The mother, Alexis Nungaray, was returning a voicemail Trump had left earlier in the day when she was at her daughter’s funeral, a friend of the family, Victoria Galvan, who witnessed the call, told Reuters.

Nungaray’s body was found in a creek near her home on June 17, after her attackers allegedly took her under a bridge, tied her up, took her pants off and strangled her, according to police and prosecutors.

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The suspects - Johan Jose Martinez Rangel, 22, and Franklin Jose Pena Ramos, 26 - had been detained by US border authorities in Texas earlier this year but released pending a court appearance.

During the debate, Trump spoke of Nungaray’s case and the phone call as he hammered Biden on his immigration policies, accusing the Democrat of allowing murderers and rapists into the country.

“There have been many young women murdered by the same people he allows to come across our border,” Trump said. “These killers are coming into our country and they are raping and killing women. And it’s a terrible thing.”

Citing Nungaray’s case, he said: “This is horrible, what’s taken place ... We’re literally an uncivilized country now.”

Trump’s attacks are from a well-thumbed playbook he has used repeatedly since first running for office in 2015 to cast immigrants illegally crossing the southern border as violent criminals.

He typically focuses on young, usually white, women allegedly killed by Hispanic assailants to drive home that message, eschewing cases that involve male victims.

His opponents accuse him of cynically exploiting grieving families to fuel his narrative that foreign-born, often Hispanic, arrivals are part of an invading army.

“Part of what is going on here is an effort to stimulate xenophobia or animus or ethnic hostility,” said Christopher Federico, a professor of political science and psychology at the University of Minnesota, adding Trump seems to be playing to racist stereotypes that paint Latino men as threats to “the perceived purity of white womanhood.”

Studies generally find there is no evidence immigrants commit crimes at a higher rate than native-born Americans and critics say Trump’s rhetoric reinforces racist tropes.

Still, polling shows that the visceral message resonates among many voters. It is amplified by conservative media, pro-Trump influencers online and sometimes the grieving relatives and friends of women killed.

Galvan, 27, blamed Nungaray’s death on Biden’s easing of some restrictions on the US-Mexico border.

“I think Jocelyn would definitely still be here if President Trump was our president,” Galvan said, adding that she planned to vote for the first time in a presidential election and would support Trump.

Despite the lack of evidence, about three-quarters of Republicans in a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted in May said migrants in the US illegally “are a danger to public safety.”

Well-worn playbook

Trump has attacked Biden for record levels of migrants caught illegally crossing the US-Mexico border. Immigration is a major voter concern, particularly among conservatives.

In response, Biden blames Trump for urging Republicans to block a bipartisan US Senate bill earlier this year that aimed to toughen border security and has portrayed Trump’s policies as unnecessarily cruel.

“Donald Trump is using the pain and loss of American families for the benefit of one person and one person only: Donald Trump,” Biden campaign spokesperson Kevin Munoz said in a statement. “His sick and dehumanizing comments do nothing to make our border more secure and are beneath the office of president of the United States.”

A digital ad featuring violent crimes and criticizing Biden launched last week in seven battleground states as part of a push by the conservative group Building America’s Future.

The ad focuses on Rachel Morin - a mother of five raped and killed while jogging in August 2023 near her Maryland home - and her accused killer, an immigrant from El Salvador in the US illegally.

“Joe Biden’s open border, a nightmare for American women,” a woman’s voice says as the face of Morin’s accused killer is displayed next to Biden’s.

Trump’s approach echoes the oft-cited “Willie Horton” ad attacking Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign, according to Susan Del Percio, a Republican strategist critical of Trump’s immigration rhetoric.

Horton was Black and critics said the ad - which effectively boosted Republican George H.W. Bush’s candidacy - sought to provoke race-based fear.

“Trump is saying, ‘We don’t like immigrants and now here’s another horrific reason not to like them. They will come after you and kill you,’” she said.

Trump campaign spokesperson Karoline Leavitt said Biden’s border policies had allowed dangerous criminals to enter the US and that Trump sought to support the families of victims.

“President Trump says their names, calls their mothers, and stands with their families, while Joe Biden continues to ignore their suffering and welcome in millions of dangerous criminal illegal immigrants,” Leavitt said in a statement.

Trump has used inflammatory language to describe immigrants in the US illegally, including that they are “poisoning the blood” of the country.

Mixed reception

The parents of some victims have welcomed Trump’s efforts to publicize the brutal killings while others say he is simply politicizing the deaths of their loved ones.

In 2018, Trump publicized the case of Mollie Tibbetts after the 20-year-old University of Iowa student was killed by a Mexican immigrant in the US illegally, but Tibbetts’ father chastised Trump at the time for exploiting the tragedy for political gain.

Laura Calderwood, Tibbetts’ mother, told Reuters she believed her daughter’s murderer was a troubled person but that the killing had nothing to do with his immigration status.

“It was an anomaly,” said Calderwood, a Democrat who plans to vote for Biden. “There are lots of illegal immigrants here and they don’t go out and murder people.”

Michelle Root, whose daughter Sarah was killed in Nebraska in 2016 when her car was hit by a drunken driver in the US illegally, told Reuters that then President Barack Obama and Vice President Biden never responded when she wrote them at the time to raise awareness about the case.

Obama’s personal office and the White House did not respond to requests for comment.

Trump, then a presidential candidate, invited her to meet with him before a rally in Omaha, she said. The meeting convinced Root - a lifelong Democrat who twice voted for Obama - to back Trump.

He later called her and asked her permission to mention Sarah’s case in his acceptance of the Republican presidential nomination that summer, she said.

“If it wasn’t for him, Sarah wouldn’t have had a voice,” she said.

Patty Morin, the mother of Rachel Morin, was “incredibly touched” when Trump reached out to her earlier this month to offer condolences, her attorney, Randolph Rice, told Reuters.

“During the 20-minute phone call, the president asked about Rachel and her family and how they are doing,” Rice said in an email. “She has still not heard from the Biden administration.”

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