Goaded on by the president, a crowd at a Donald Trump rally on Wednesday night chanted “Send her back! Send her back!” in reference to Ilhan Omar, a US congresswoman who arrived almost 30 years ago as a child refugee in the United States.
Trump used the 2020 campaign rally in Greenville, North Carolina, to attack Omar and three other Democratic congresswomen – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan – calling them “hate-filled extremists”. The group, which calls itself “the Squad”, has been the focus of racist attacks by the president this week, kickstarted by tweets posted on Sunday in which he said the lawmakers, all women of color, should “go back” to other countries.
Omar, of Minnesota, arrived in the United States at age eight as a refugee of war from Somalia. Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley and Tlaib were born in the United States.
On 14 July Trump sent a series of tweets saying:
“So interesting to see ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough. I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!”
The US president did not name his targets, but the attack was directed at congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York; Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts; Rashida Tlaib of Michigan; and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. Only Omar, who is from Somalia, was not born in the US.
Trump has subsequently launched several further attacks on the congresswoman accusing them of "foul language & racist hatred". On 16 July he tweeted that they had been "spewing some of the most vile, hateful, and disgusting things ever said by a politician in the House or Senate, & yet they get a free pass and a big embrace from the Democrat Party. Horrible anti-Israel, anti-USA, pro-terrorist & public shouting of the F...word, among many other terrible things."
He also reiterated the 'go home' message, tweeting "IF YOU ARE NOT HAPPY HERE, YOU CAN LEAVE!"
Trump’s “go back” tweets were prompted by an appearance before a House committee in which the congresswomen testified to inhumane conditions they witnessed during tours of migrant detention facilities in Texas.
Trump’s tweets led the House to pass a resolution of condemnation. “Every single member of this institution, Democratic and Republican, should join us in condemning the president’s racist tweets,” the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, said on Tuesday. “To do anything less would be a shocking rejection of our values and a shameful abdication of our oath of office to protect the American people.”
But clearly sensing a political winner – notwithstanding polling showing that a majority of Americans found his remarks to be offensive – Trump riffed on the theme at his rally.
“Let ’em leave,” Trump said of the members of Congress. “They’re always telling us how to run it, how to do this, how to do that. You know what? If they don’t love it, tell ’em to leave it.”
The crowd chimed in as he finished, shouting “leave it”. The chant “send her back” was an embroidery of a chant popular during Trump’s first presidential run, when crowds attacked his opponent, Hillary Clinton, with chants of “lock her up”.
The “lock her up” chant was led at the Republican national convention in Cleveland, Ohio, by Trump’s then campaign adviser Michael Flynn, who later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI but has so far avoided prison time.
At least three former Trump aides have been locked up since the 2016 campaign, including Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, his former adviser Michael Cohen, and his former adviser George Papadopoulos, while others, including Flynn and Trump’s former adviser Rick Gates, have pleaded guilty to federal felonies.
Trump’s speech in North Carolina also included a professed exasperation with the fact that Ocasio-Cortez’s name is hyphenated.
“No, no: I don’t have time to go with three different names,” Trump said. “We’ll call her Cortez. Too much time. Takes too much time.”
Ayanna Pressley, Massachusetts
A firebrand but nevertheless perhaps the most moderate member of "The Squad", Pressley became the first black congresswoman to represent Massachusetts when she defeated a 20-year incumbent (and fellow progressive) to win an area once represented by John F Kennedy. Pressley has adopted the humanitarian crisis on the southern border and the harsh conditions of detained migrants as focal issues. She has spoken about her father being incarcerated and how she is a rape survivor. "The people closest to the pain should be closest to the power," is a favourite mantra. Pressley vowed they "would not be silenced".
Ilhan Omar, Minnesota
Omar is the first Somali-American member of Congress, and the first (along with Tlaib) of two Muslim women ever elected. She wears a hijab, obliging a change of rules about headgear in Congress. She is the only member of the Squad to be born outside the US, arriving more than 20 years ago as part of a refugee resettlement programme, becoming a US citizen in 2000 at the age of 17. Omar campaigns for universal healthcare, a $15 minimum wage, and student loan forgiveness. Omar has been a vocal critic of Israel's treatment of Palestinians, calling its government the "apartheid Israeli regime".
Rashida Tlaib, Michigan
Tlaib is the first of 14 children born to Palestinian immigrant parents and the first in her family to graduate from high school as well as college. She served in the Michigan state legislature, where she was known for causing controversy. A year before her 2018 election, she was expelled from a political rally in Michigan for asking the then-Republican presidential nominee Trump if he'd ever read the constitution. Immediately following her election to congress, Tlaib told a group of fellow progressives: "We're gonna go in there and we're going to impeach the motherfucker".
The best known of the four, Ocasio-Cortez became the youngest woman elected to Congress when she defeated a 10-term Democratic incumbent to win New York's 14th congressional district last November. Born in the Bronx, Ocasio-Cortez is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, the group that acts as an ideological nursery for young progressives. One of her first legislative proposals - the Green New Deal resolution to combat global heating and poverty - forced 2020 candidates to prioritise the climate crisis.
Edward Helmore New York
The scene drew reactions of shock and horror from across the political spectrum. “The bigoted mob chanting ‘send her back’ tonight is significant,” tweeted Walter Shaub, a former director of the US office of government ethics under Barack Obama.
“When you outdo [Richard] Nixon in repulsiveness, you’ve gone a long way,” said commentator David Gergen on CNN, a veteran of the Nixon and other Republican administrations.
“‘SEND HER BACK, SEND HER BACK,’ is ugly. It’s ignorant. It’s dangerous,” tweeted Joe Walsh, the conservative radio host and former Republican congressman. “And it’s un-American. It’s flat out bigotry. And every Republican should condemn this bigotry immediately. Stop this now.”
Omar herself responded with a tweet on Wednesday evening, in which she quoted a poem by Maya Angelou: “You may shoot me with your words, You may cut me with your eyes, You may kill me with your hatefulness, But still, like air, I’ll rise.” She later posted: “I am where I belong, at the people’s house and you’re just gonna have to deal.”
Democrats including Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren came to Omar’s defence on Wednesday night.
On Twitter, Sanders said Trump was “stoking the most despicable and disturbing currents in our society”, Harris labelled the behaviour as vile, cowardly and racist, while Warren said impeachment proceedings against the president must begin.
Fellow Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke said the chants were “the product of a president who sees our diversity not as a strength but as a weakness”.