President Donald Trump is being widely criticized for not pushing back when an attendee of his Wednesday rally in Florida suggested shooting migrants at the southern border between the United States and Mexico.
At the rally in Panama City Beach, Florida, Trump told the crowd that the government is unable to attack migrants trying to cross the border and asked for help finding a solution.
“Don’t forget, we don’t let [border security agents]and we can’t let them use weapons,” Trump said of federal border security officials tasked with apprehending immigrants crossing into the United States from Mexico. “Other countries do, but we can’t. I would never do that. But, how do you stop these people?”
“Shoot them,” a rally attendee shouted.
Trump paused and smiled as the crowd cheered and laughed. “That’s only in the Panhandle you can get away with that statement,” Trump then said while shaking his head. “Only in the Panhandle.”
At the rally, Trump also defended his characterization of some Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals during his 2015 presidential campaign launch. He said of his earlier comments, “that speech was so mild compared to what’s happening.”
Almost immediately after Wednesday’s rally, the president faced criticism for not discouraging the idea of shooting immigrants.
Some critics pointed out that there have already been problems with armed militia groups trying to apprehend migrants. Last month, the FBI arrested a man who was reportedly a leader of an armed group that detained migrants in New Mexico. The man, Larry Mitchell Hopkins, was arrested and charged with being a felon in possession of firearms and ammunition.
Meanwhile, New Mexico Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Hector Balderas, New Mexico’s attorney general, have been warning residents not to take immigration matters into their own hands.
After Trump’s Florida rally, a number of people condemned the president’s comments.
“This is horrifying but not surprising,” said Pili Tobar, the deputy director of America’s Voice, a progressive immigration organization, in a statement. “Just because Trump’s reaction is by this point so predictable and normalized it doesn’t diminish how disturbing it is that the President of the United States is failing to forcefully denounce violence and vigilantism while he cultivates a climate of fear and inhumanity about immigrants and refugees. Instead, Trump is laughing along with the supposed joke and giving a ‘wink wink’ tacit approval of such actions.”
On Twitter, Matt Wolking, deputy director of communications for the president’s reelection campaign, stressed that the president said he would never let border officials use weapons against immigrants.
Trump actually said: "Don't forget, we don't let [border security agents] & we can't let them use weapons, we can't. Other countries do, but we can't. I would never let them do that." pic.twitter.com/YiEZsgJj8B
— Matt Wolking (@MattWolking) May 9, 2019
More than 100,000 migrants were apprehended or deemed inadmissible along the southern U.S. border in both March and April, according to the latest data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Trump appointed Kevin McAleenan as acting head of the Department of Homeland Security last month as part of an effort to take a tougher approach to the rising apprehensions at the border and other immigration policies more broadly.
On Tuesday, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and a White House adviser, briefed Republican senators on a new immigration proposal that the Trump administration hopes to put forward.
According to a senior administration official, the proposal would include a border security plan that would in part modernize ports of entry, as well as a new merit-based immigration system that would emphasize getting highly skilled immigrants into the country.
Trump is still soliciting feedback from Republicans and has not shared the plan with Democrats, who now control of the House of Representatives and would be crucial to getting any immigration bill passed.
Trump has long faced criticism for his comments about immigrants as well as his hardline immigration policies, including separating immigrant families across to the southern border.
Last month, the president said this about immigrants while speaking to reporters in the Oval Office: “They’re coming like it’s a picnic. Because let’s go to Disneyland.”
In April, he also said in a speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas that some immigrants seeking asylum in the United States are part of a “scam” and that some look like they should be “fighting for the UFC,” the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a mixed martial arts promotion company.