High-ranking Department of Homeland Security official Ken Cuccinelli claimed on Monday that a U.S. citizen accused of stabbing five Hasidic Jews at a Hanukkah celebration in New York lacked “American values” because the man’s father was an undocumented immigrant who gained legal status more than three decades ago.
“The attacker is the US Citizen son of an illegal alien who got amnesty under the 1986 amnesty law for illegal immigrants,” Cuccinelli, acting deputy secretary at DHS, said Monday morning in a now-deleted tweet. “Apparently, American values did not take hold among this entire family, at least this one violent, and apparently bigoted, son.”
It’s not clear where Cuccinelli got that information or whether he is correct. DHS did not respond to a request for comment about why Cuccinelli felt the suspect’s father’s immigration status from decades ago was relevant or appropriate to share with the public. DHS also did not respond to a question about why Cuccinelli deleted his tweet.
Cuccinelli’s comments “are a disgrace,” Thomas’ lawyer, Michael Sussman, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. Thomas’ parents migrated to the U.S. and gained legal status in 1986, Sussman said, adding that Thomas was born in the U.S. and is a citizen.
“His immigration status appears totally unrelated to his mental illness and the circumstances which caused the events of last Saturday evening,” Sussman said. (People with mental illness are not more likely to commit violent crimes, research shows.)
Before assuming his current position at DHS, Cuccinelli was the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. There, he sought the power to “unilaterally publicize personal information about asylees, refugees, and their family members in the US who are being prosecuted for certain crimes,” BuzzFeed News reported in September. The request was an effort to “undermine faith in the asylum and refugee system to suggest it is a public safety threat and the data does not support that,” former acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Sandweg told BuzzFeed at the time.
The attack Cuccinelli referenced in his tweet took place on Saturday night inside a Hasidic rabbi’s home, where members of the community had gathered to celebrate the seventh night of Hanukkah. The attacker stormed into the home around 10 p.m. wielding a machete he used to stab five people. The accused attacker, 38-year-old Grafton Thomas, pleaded not guilty on Sunday to five counts of attempted murder and one count of first-degree burglary.
Federal prosecutors filed hate crimes charges against Thomas on Monday. Officials found handwritten journals in Thomas’ home which included references to Adolf Hitler and “Nazi culture” on the same page as drawings of the Star of David and a swastika, according to the complaint. They also searched Thomas’ phone and found it had been used to search “Why did Hitler hate the Jews” and the location of temples in New York and New Jersey.
There is no publicly available evidence that Thomas’ father raised him to hate Jewish people — or that children of immigrants are more likely to commit violent hate crimes. But Cuccinelli, an anti-immigration fearmonger, has long tried to portray foreigners as inherently dangerous to Americans.
He has opposed birthright citizenship, tried to punish individuals for not speaking English at work, compared immigration policy to pest control, fretted about an immigrant “invasion,” and boosted the Center for Immigration Studies, which the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies as an anti-immigrant hate group.
When a 23-month-old girl and her migrant father drowned as they tried to escape violence in Central America and request asylum in the U.S., Cuccinelli blamed the father for the girl’s death.
This story has been updated with comment from Michael Sussman, the accused attacker’s lawyer.