Another campaign, another outrage over ‘free phones’

It was one of Donald Trump’s familiar asides, offered not in the monotone he uses when powering through the text on the teleprompter, but, instead, with the enthusiasm that accompanies his unscripted hobbyhorses.

Trump was speaking to a crowd of supporters in South Carolina, railing against President Biden’s purported indifference to Americans. Biden, he said, “puts China first, Mexico first, Ukraine first, Europe first, Asia first — illegal aliens first above our great veterans.” He repeated that line: “Puts the illegal aliens above our veterans.” And then he started riffing.

“You ever see the illegal aliens, the weirdest thing, they come in by the tens of thousands, sometimes a day, and they all have cellphones. I’m saying, where did they get the cellphones?” he said. “Everybody has a cellphone. They’re all talking in these beautiful cellphones. And they’re expensive ones, too. They’re nice ones.”

He questioned who was paying for the phones, tasking Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) with figuring it out. “Our veterans don’t have cellphones, do they?” he continued. “But they put illegal aliens first and everyone first, but he puts America last.”

To a new observer, this would seem like an odd argument. Presumably migrants who have cellphones are paying for their own phones? Why wouldn’t they? But the comparison with the veterans who “don’t have cellphones” is the tell: Trump is suggesting that the government is handing out high-quality cellphones to migrants as part of its purported efforts to flood the country with immigrants.

It’s a bit of patter clumsily repurposed from right-wing media — and one with a surprisingly long lineage. It’s just the latest iteration of the right’s frustration with the idea that the government (and, particularly, an incumbent Democratic president) is spending money on frivolous giveaways (in their estimation) to poor people of color.

When trying to figure out what Trump is talking about, a good place to start is the prime-time programming on his long-favorite cable channel, Fox News. So let’s consider the commentary from host Sean Hannity on Sept. 21. He, as Trump, was casting Biden as hopelessly committed to drawing migrants into the country.

“They’re also facilitating — get this! — the arrival of these illegals,” Hannity asserted, “including free flights, free cellphones and free everything else.”

And there it is. Hannity didn’t claim, as Trump did, that some expert had told him that the phones at issue were particularly nice, but the gist was very much the same. Biden giving out phones to migrants, something about which everyone should be aghast.

As is often the case, this idea is rooted in something real. The government does have a program in which people seeking asylum are given mobile devices. But these are not “cellphones” in the way you might assume. They serve as more functional replacements for the ankle monitors that immigration officials used to use to track people awaiting legal hearings.

The devices are made by BI Incorporated, a subsidiary of GEO Group, a company “committed to providing leading, evidence-based rehabilitation programs to individuals while in-custody and post-release into the community.” It has a frequently-asked-questions page about the devices it provides to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for use with migrants, explaining that the devices aren’t smartphones.

“ICE officers log into a secure operating system developed by BI, and assign the device to a participant. Once the device is powered on, participants can easily comply with ICE supervision terms,” the FAQ reads. “… BI Mobile eliminates the participants’ ability to: browse the internet, make calls, send or receive text messages, access the app stores, etc.”

A one-pager produced by BI shows the limited applications available on the devices. Asylum seekers can track documents related to their cases, receive updates on hearings and check in with government officials.

Some asylum seekers have their own phones, of course, or get phones at some point after making their asylum claims. They can turn in their limited-functionality BI devices and install an application (also from BI) called SmartLINK. It has the same functionality seen above; the BI devices are basically vehicles for the app and nothing else.

It’s worth noting that the deployment of SmartLINK and the distribution of devices that included the app began in 2018 — during Trump’s own presidential administration.

So why is Trump amplifying this idea that Biden’s passing out cool new phones to migrants? In part because he’s simply trying to score points on the issue of immigration, obviously. But in part because similar claims have been part of right-wing rhetoric for more than a decade.

In 2012, President Barack Obama (and Vice President Joe Biden) were seeking reelection. In September, a video clip emerged showing a Black woman committing to supporting Obama’s victory not because she agreed with his policies in general but, instead, because he’d given her a phone.

“Everybody in Cleveland, all the minorities got an Obamaphone,” she tells the man filming her. “Keep Obama president, you know, he gave us a phone. He’s going to do more.”

The clip spread quickly on the right. It was ostensibly a reflection of how the Obama administration had been giving handouts to his allies. But this wasn’t true; the federal program reducing the cost of phone service for the poor had been in place since the 1980s. In fact, the claim that this was a function of Obama’s largesse had been debunked months before the clip went viral.

Of course, it also went viral because it featured a Black woman, someone who served (explicitly or not) as a stereotype of a poor person of color. This was the tea party era, after all, a time when the right was obsessively focused on government spending — but primarily in contexts where it seemed like the spending benefited out-groups such as the poor and immigrants. The “Obamaphone” controversy slotted into that sentiment perfectly.

So does Trump’s disparagement of Biden in South Carolina. It wasn’t just that Biden was making bad decisions. It wasn’t even that he was making bad decisions to benefit the immigrants Trump is so fond of disparaging. It was that Biden was using the audience’s money to give fancy phones to these people who shouldn’t be here.

As with the Obamaphones and recent complaints from the House Freedom Caucus, the government-spending complaint served as a stalking horse for the real frustration: those worrisome others are getting some sort of benefit.

To an outside observer, this facet of Trump’s comments was not immediately obvious. But to members of his base, who probably saw that Hannity segment or another like it, and who might well have allied with the tea party before it evolved into MAGAism? The point could be presented clumsily but still land with the intended force.

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