WASHINGTON D.C.: A rape at a Washington area high school has drawn intense scrutiny as part of the immigration debate launched under President Donald Trump, since the two alleged attackers are Latinos who entered the United States illegally.
Under normal circumstances, a case like this would not make national headlines. But these are not normal times in America.
The attack feeds perfectly into the Trump narrative that the United States has porous borders and does not give priority to native-born Americans, and that unauthorized immigrants mean more and more violent crime.
Jose Montano, 17, and Henry Sanchez Milian, 18, are accused of brutally raping a 14-year-old classmate in a bathroom during school hours. They have been arrested and are in custody as they wait to go before a judge.
The rape took place last week at a public high school in Rockville, Maryland, a Washington suburb in Montgomery County, which is strongly pro-Democratic.
Seventy-six percent of the county’s voters went with Hillary Clinton in the November election.
News reports say Sanchez Milian was born in Guatemala and in August 2016 crossed the Rio Grande separating Mexico from the United States, as do many Latinos seeking to escape poverty and find a better life in the United States. He was picked up by border control agents.
A few days later, he was let go to join his father, who was living in Maryland while the youth waited to appear before an immigration judge.
That hearing has not even been scheduled yet, because of a huge backlog in the courts: half a million cases involving unauthorized immigrants waiting to see if they can stay or will be deported.
An estimated 11 million people live in the country illegally, most of them Mexicans and other Latinos.
The rape unexpectedly threw gasoline on the red hot national immigration debate, including plenty of xenophobic commentary on social media.
Many Republican lawmakers wondered aloud how an authorized immigrant who does not speak English and is legally an adult, like Sanchez Milian, can be placed in a public school in contact with much younger people.
Fox News, which is popular with conservatives, has provided blanket coverage of the rape in all its ugly, violent detail.
The television network also claimed there were links between the rape and so-called sanctuary cities, where local authorities do not cooperate with their federal counterparts on immigration and deportation matters.
The case took on national dimensions Tuesday when White House spokesman Sean Spicer called the sexual assault “shocking, disturbing, horrific.”
“I think part of the reason that the president has made illegal immigration and crackdown such a big deal is because of tragedies like this,” Spicer said.
Rockville “should look at its policies,” he added. Under Maryland law, anyone aged 5 to 21 has the right to go to school, even if they are in the country illegally.
The Trump administration is accused of trying to score political points at the expense of Montano, who was born in El Salvador, and Sanchez Milian.
Trump often links immigration to higher crime rates, although no serious studies back up this claim.
In announcing his candidacy in June 2015, Trump famously said that some of the Mexicans who cross the border illegally are rapists and drug dealers.
He has also called Latino migrants “bad hombres.”
The controversy deepened when the Republican governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, urged Montgomery County officials to cooperate fully with the probe into the rape. This was seen by some as a veiled criticism that they had been dragging their feet.
Jack Smith, the Montgomery County Public Schools superintendent, said it is “totally inappropriate to suggest that we’re going to deny a 14-year-old, a 16-year-old, an 18-year-old an education because of a horrible thing that happened in our schools last Thursday.”
He defended putting 17- or 18-year-olds in class with younger kids if the former’s educational level requires some catching up.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos tried to calm things down by visiting an elementary school in Maryland on Thursday.
DeVos, a billionaire, was a controversial choice for her post because she backs a mechanism under which taxpayer money can be earmarked for private or religious schools, and besides that, she has no experience whatsoever in education. Protesters greeted her at the elementary school.
By sheer coincidence, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released data Thursday for 2013-2014.
“These statistics make it clear that immigration-related offenses along the United States border with Mexico account for an enormous portion of the federal government’s law enforcement resources and that we must enforce our immigration laws in a way that consistently deters future violations,” said Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores.