Editor’s Note: Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinions on CNN.
Mr. President, brown people speak English.
At a White House event on Monday, billed as “Salute to the Heroes of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection,” President Donald Trump called to the stage a Latino Border Patrol agent, Adrian Anzaldua.
“Adrian, come here. I want to ask you a question,” Trump said. “So how did you – come here. Come here. You’re not nervous, are you?” Addressing the audience, Trump then added, “speaks perfect English.”
To put it bluntly, that’s what it sounds like when someone as racist as Trump tries to give a compliment to a person of color.
Trump’s remark speaks volumes about how he views Latinos. To him, members of the country’s largest minority group will likely always seem foreign, even if they are US law enforcement officers. Over and over again, the attitude we’ve seen Trump display toward Latinos can be described as somewhere between ignorant and hostile.
For the record, most Latinos do speak English. Research from the Pew Hispanic Center shows that in 2013 more than 33 million US Latinos spoke English proficiently. That translated to 68% of Hispanics, up from 59% in 2000.
And not only is English usage on the rise among Latinos, but the share of Hispanics who speak Spanish at home is declining.
This reality seems to be lost on Trump, who was apparently surprised that a Hispanic person spoke fluent English. Never mind that being a US citizen is a requirement of being a Border Patrol agent – or that immigration agents are required to learn Spanish while at the Border Patrol Academy as well.
If there is someone who does not speak (or spell) perfect English, it is Trump, who has given us words like “bigly” and “covfefe.” He regularly mangles syntax and often speaks in a confusing mishmash of word salad. In fact, at the White House event, Trump repeatedly referred to CBP (Customs and Border Protection) as the “CBC” – an acronym that is usually understood to refer to the Congressional Black Caucus.
Trump can’t blame his saying “CBC” over and over on a speechwriter, because the teleprompter script correctly said “CBP.” What kind of President holds an event to honor an agency and can’t get the agency’s name right?
The answer is a President who is out of touch. At Monday’s event, Trump blasted what he called “open border” activists, who have criticized ICE and CBP, the agencies tasked with carrying out his immigration policies. He suggested such activists represent only a small fraction of Americans.
“The vast majority, they’re all with you,” he told the assembled ICE and CBP agents. “They have no courage, they have no guts, they just have big loud mouths. We don’t want to put up with that.”
Aside from the irony of Trump accusing others of having “big loud mouths,” most Americans disapprove of the way Trump is handling immigration policy – even if they don’t necessarily endorse the “abolish ICE” movement. A June CNN poll found that only 35% of Americans approve of how Trump is handling immigration, compared with 59% who disapprove.
There is nothing new about Trump’s well-documented bias against Latinos. He has insulted prominent Latino journalists, politicians, and even a distinguished federal judge. But the disappointing thing about Monday’s event was that Trump’s remark overshadowed the whole point of the ceremony – and the accomplishment of Anzaldua, the agent that Trump called to the stage.
“Speaks perfect English” trended on Twitter on Monday, not “Heroes of ICE and CBP.”
Anzaldua may have helped save lives, and he deserved recognition. He did not deserve to be the focus of a racially-tinged comment – just as Hispanic Americans do not deserve to be presumed non-English speakers.