Kenneth Cuccinelli, a top immigration official in the Trump administration, faced blowback Monday after saying the man accused of stabbing five Orthodox Jews in New York was the son of an "illegal alien" and came from a family lacking "American values."
Little was known about Grafton Thomas, the suspect in the attack in Monsey, New York, when Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, took to Twitter to say that Thomas' father came to the country illegally but gained amnesty under a far-reaching immigration bill signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.
"Apparently, American values did not take hold among this entire family, at least this one violent, and apparently bigoted, son," Cuccinelli wrote in a tweet that was deleted shortly after its posting. The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees Citizenship and Immigration Services, did not immediately answer questions seeking clarity on the source or accuracy of the information or the purpose of releasing it.
Cuccinelli's statement came as federal prosecutors filed hate crimes charges against Thomas in the attack, which took place at a rabbi's house during a Hanukkah celebration on Saturday.
Some inside and outside the Department of Homeland Security were appalled by the message, which drew a connection between the citizenship status of the suspect's family and the gruesome crime. They said it was highly unusual to reveal the immigration records of a suspect's family to the public during the early stages of an investigation.
David Lapan, a former department spokesman in the Trump administration, accused Cuccinelli of "fear-mongering" and sending a political message to Stephen Miller, the architect of hard-line immigration policies at the White House.
"I see no relevance at all, especially today at this early stage, and that's what's really distasteful," Lapan said. "Inside 48 hours of this horrific incident happening he's already trying to leverage it for his own and Stephen Miller's own agenda on immigration."
Michael H. Sussman, a lawyer representing Thomas, said at a news conference that it was "absurd" for a politician to try to link the stabbings to immigration policy.
"It's more than regrettable that the events of 30-plus years ago are in any way linked to this," Sussman said, responding to a question about Cuccinelli's tweet. He said that Thomas' father has lived in Utah for many years and that the two had been in touch but did not have an extensive relationship.
"Why anyone would, in a sense, stretch and try to make this in any way about immigration is, for me, absurd," Sussman said.
He also said that Kim Thomas, Thomas' mother and a nurse, had immigrated to the United States from Guyana and became a citizen in 1986.
Cuccinelli has been one of President Donald Trump's most outspoken defenders on immigration and has been at the forefront of some of the president's aggressive efforts to restrict migration to the United States.
He has faced criticism for other comments on immigration. Cuccinelli, who oversees legal immigration, said in August that an iconic sonnet on the Statue of Liberty referred to "people coming from Europe where they had class-based societies," while defending a rule that would deny legal status to immigrants deemed likely to use government benefit programs. When a photograph showing a migrant father and his daughter drowned on the banks of the Rio Grande went viral in June, Cuccinelli blamed the father for their deaths.
On multiple occasions, he has used his official Twitter account to highlight crimes committed by immigrants in so-called sanctuary cities represented by Democratic lawmakers. Many studies have debunked the theory that immigration drives crime.
Lapan said Miller and others in the White House would often push homeland security officials to cherry-pick data that highlighted crimes committed by unauthorized immigrants as a way to target cities led by Democrats.
Gil Kerlikowske, a commissioner with Customs and Border Protection during the Obama administration, said it was normal to search through homeland security databases to find the immigration and travel records of suspects of significant crimes. But he said it was highly unusual to publicize such information.
"It's a good practice when it's used for law enforcement and investigative purposes," Kerlikowske said. "To use that information in any other way is not only unprofessional but really unethical."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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