- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 15, 2016

A few years ago, they were the forgotten story of the immigration debate — the families of victims of crimes perpetrated by illegal immigrants who were ignored by the press and left begging for meetings with government officials.

Donald Trump has changed all that, giving the mothers and fathers an unparalleled platform to make their case from the podium of the Republican National Convention and again last month as they joined him on stage at the end of his major immigration policy speech in Arizona.

On Saturday, Mr. Trump will go even further, addressing the victims’ first-ever conference hosted by the Remembrance Project. The families will meet in Texas to share their stories and plot their next steps as they gain prominence.

“We are very honored for Donald Trump to have accepted our invitation to meet with stolen lives families and to speak at the Remembrance Luncheon. The families that have been ignored for so long are finally being heard,” said Maria Espinoza, national director of the project.

The families have labored for years to have their voices heard, pleading with reporters for coverage and arguing that they are proof that illegal immigration isn’t a victimless crime. If the government had been doing its job, they say, their spouses and children would still be alive.

In a tragic bit of serendipity, Mr. Trump kicked off his presidential campaign last year with a stern message against illegal immigration — just days before Kate Steinle, a 32-year-old woman, was slain while walking along the San Francisco waterfront with her father. The man accused in her killing had been deported five times and was released back into the U.S. thanks to San Francisco’s sanctuary city policy.

Mr. Trump, who at the time was under fire for his comments accusing Mexicans of contributing to crime in the U.S., seized on the case as proof he was right.

Testifying to Congress weeks later at a hearing on the issue, Laura Wilkerson, whose son was killed by an illegal immigrant student at his high school, said it was Mr. Trump who brought them and their issue in from the wilderness.

“Thank you to Mr. Trump for getting a message out in two minutes,” she said. “It feels good to be heard. Whether you love him or whether you don’t, I felt heard.”

The American Immigration Council has questioned Mr. Trump’s motives in aligning with the victims’ families, saying in a blog post this year that it was an effort “to stir up anti-immigrant fervor.”

“Despite the overwhelming evidence that immigration is not linked to higher crime rates and that immigrants are less likely to be criminals than the native-born, Trump, like many before him, is playing to fears and prejudices about what some imagine immigrants to be,” Wendy Feliz, communications director for the council, wrote in the post.

Although crime rates among illegal immigrants are difficult to discern — in part because there is no precise count of the size of the unauthorized population — the American Immigration Council said there is plenty of evidence that immigrants as a whole are less likely to amass serious criminal records than the native-born.

Immigrant rights advocates also accuse the Remembrance Project of sketchy ties. The Chicago-based Center for New Community, which tracks hate groups, said Ms. Espinoza has spoken alongside “virulent” nativists and “uses fear to paint immigrants as criminals.”

Terri Johnson, executive director at the center, did not answer a request for comment on her findings.

Her group’s objections, though, have done nothing to dissuade Mr. Trump, who has embraced the mothers at campaign events.

“Now is the time for these voices to be heard,” the candidate said in Phoenix on Aug. 31, as he invited the parents onto the stage at the end of his immigration policy speech. “Now is the time for the media to begin asking questions on their behalf. Now is the time for all of us as one country, Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative to band together to deliver justice and safety and security for all Americans.”

Mr. Trump’s Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, has kept the families at arm’s length.

Mrs. Clinton was asked to speak to the gathering this weekend but never responded to the invitation, Ms. Espinoza said.

“We are saddened that a presidential candidate who might lead all Americans is unwilling to meet with or even extend her condolences over the phone,” Ms. Espinoza said. “Her lack of leadership is evident.”

Still, the families’ cause does draw some bipartisan support.

Democrats in Connecticut’s congressional delegation have taken up the case of Casey Chadwick, a young woman stabbed to death last year by an illegal immigrant from Haiti who previously served prison time in the United States for attempted murder. He was loose on the streets because Haiti refused to take him back.

Thanks to pressure from the state’s two U.S. senators, the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general investigated the case of Jean Jacques, the Haitian man convicted of the murder, and found multiple problems with the way the government handled the case.

Wendy Hartling, the mother of the slain woman, said that was a shame and more national Democrats should join the push.

“The Democrats should be on this too. They really should be. I learned so much since my daughter was murdered about the laws we have in place, but they’re not being utilized,” she said. “That’s our goal is so this doesn’t happen to anyone else’s child.”

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