Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
But the "new era" of draconian enforcement that Jeff Sessions just announced is based on faulty assumptions about criminality and immigration.
Even for an administration that has made anti-immigrant rhetoric routine, the speech that Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave on Tuesday was shocking in both tone and content.
Sessions was ostensibly announcing a set of tough new measures targeting gangs, which he described as “criminal organizations that turn cities and suburbs into warzones, that rape and kill innocent citizens and who profit by smuggling poison and other human beings across our borders.” But in practice, these measures apply to almost everyone without papers. And that’s not by accident. “For those that continue to seek improper and illegal entry into this country, be forewarned: This is a new era,” Sessions said. “This is the Trump era.”
In a memo to prosecutors, the AG also ordered higher punishments for entering the country illegally, re-entering the country after already being deported, using fake documents, and transporting or harboring unauthorized immigrants. Taken together, we are now seeing the specific dimensions of the Trump administration’s war on undocumented immigrants.
The M.O. here is a familiar one: create a system that categorizes whole groups of people as hardened criminals to justify punishing them disproportionately and denying them rights. It’s a system based on a fundamentally flawed—and frankly, racist—generalization that certain immigrants are overwhelmingly a threat to public safety.
So, let’s take a look at that underlying assumption. Do higher numbers of immigrants lead to more crime? As we’ve explained here before, the research generally says no. Immigrants revitalize the areas they settle in, strengthen community institutions, and improve social cohesion, all of which helps reduce crime. A couple of recent studies, however, added a wrinkle: Place matters. In newer destinations, like North Carolina and Nebraska, where the social infrastructure is less developed for immigrants, the relationship between immigrants and crime can be a positive one. Especially at first, immigration can heighten tensions between immigrant and native communities, and trigger an increase in crime. The brunt of that negative impact is typically borne by communities of color, because they live closer are most in competition for jobs with immigrants.
But a new longitudinal analysis, by Purdue University sociologist Michael T. Light, contradicts these findings. Unlike those cross-sectional studies, which provide snapshots of the relationship in time, Light takes the long view. He analyzes Centers for Disease Control and Prevention death records between 1990 and 2010, to test how the rise in Latino immigration—legal and illegal—impacts homicides. His big finding: “[T]he immigration-violence association is negative for whites, blacks, and Hispanics alike, though the effects are most pronounced for minorities.” Likely because of the fact that they live closer together, other communities of color benefit even more, when immigrants move nearby. Second, this relationship is true regardless of where the immigrants are moving—both in the short- and long-term. Via the paper:
There is no evidence that Latino immigration has increased homicide victimizations for whites, blacks, or Hispanics in either established or non-traditional immigrant destinations.
To take this finding to its logical end: Targeting Latinos is not making anyone safer. And yet, the current administration has taken various measures that promote the opposite approach. As a candidate, Trump clearly famously mused, “When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best...They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” As president, many actions already taken by his administration further promote the perception. In his speech at the joint session of Congress in February, Trump asked his Department of Homeland Security to create an office focused on the victims of immigrant crime, for example. (Singling out the crimes of one group over all others has a long and problematic history.) Further back, in January, he signed an executive order asking for a public list of “criminal actions” by non-citizens.
The first iteration of this list came out shortly after, calling out jurisdictions that had not cooperated with federal law enforcement on detaining listed immigrants deemed deportable. (Among other problems, more than half of the cases mentioned in this list had pending charges, not convictions. The list has now been suspended because of inaccuracies.) And finally, the president’s executive orders make it clear that everyone without papers is a priority for removal—a departure, at least on paper, from his predecessor’s policies.
At one point, the administration was also considering deporting legal immigrants for using public benefits, and having their families reimburse the government for the usage. Vox’s Dara Lind analyzed that leaked draft memo:
This is draconian. It seeks to punish not only legal immigrants in the U.S. and their families, but also their U.S.-citizen relatives. It’s a reflection of a worldview in which any benefit an immigrant gets from the government is, in some way, a theft of American tax money—and punishes immigrants as thieves accordingly.
Of course, the myth that immigrants are “welfare queens” and criminals didn’t start with Trump—it has persisted for decades, if not longer, and informed the policies of both liberal and conservative administrations. At the same time, little heed is paid to immigration policies that have contributed to the explosion of illegal immigration, and the laws that have increasingly turned civil immigration offenses into serious crimes. In that context, the Trump era is just following a long tradition.