Criminalizing Immigrants Belies The Facts

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”— Abraham H. Maslow

President Trump has been demeaning and degrading immigrants since he announced his candidacy for the presidency, and he has continued to do so right up through his first two months in office. After more than a year of his vicious blathering about the criminality of immigrants and building a border wall, a recent report by The Sentencing Project found that Immigrants, regardless of legal status, or country of origin, do not have higher crime rates than native-born citizens, verifying that even in this age of Trump-initiated fake news and Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts,” facts can triumph over fiction.

As the Executive Summary to The Sentencing Project’s report titled “Immigration and Public Safety” pointed out: In addition to his anti-immigrant rhetoric, Trump has “linked immigrants with crime through an Executive Order directing the Attorney General to establish a task force to assist in ‘developing strategies to reduce crime, including, in particular, illegal immigration, drug trafficking, and violent crime,’ and by directing the Department of Homeland Security to create an office to assist and publicize victims of crimes committed by immigrants.”

The Sentencing Project’s report, written by Nazgol Ghandnoosh, PhD, Research Analyst, and Josh Rovner, Juvenile Justice Advocacy Associate, at The Sentencing Project, with research assistance by Casey Anderson and Jessica Yoo, Program Associates at The Sentencing Project notes that: “A rigorous body of research supports the following conclusions about the recent impact of immigrants in the United States:

  • “Immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native-born citizens.”
  • “Higher levels of immigration in recent decades may have contributed to the drop in crime rates.”
  • “Police chiefs believe that intensifying immigration law enforcement undermines public safety.”
  • “Immigrants are under-represented in S. prisons.”
  • “Immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native-born citizens”

A substantial body of research, “dating back more than a century documents a pattern whereby the foreign-born are involved in crime at significantly lower rates than their peers,” note Bianca Bersani and Alex Piquero, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts- Boston and a criminologist at the University of Texas, respectively. “Foreign-born individuals (‘first- generation immigrants’) report lower rates of criminal offending than native-born citizens and they have less contact with the criminal justice system, as measured by arrest records,” the report states in citing two “notable” studies. In addition, “foreign-born youth enrolled in U.S. middle and high schools in the mid-1990s had among the lowest delinquency rates when compared to their peers.” Over the past few decades, the crime rate has dropped significantly. “Research has demonstrated that communities with larger immigrant populations have outpaced the public safety gains of their peers,” the report notes. The report is careful to point out that “Although not definitive in proving causation, these trends establish a critical fact about immigrants and public safety: crime rates have fallen to historic lows amidst the growth of the foreign-born population.”  Immigrants help lower the crime rate in their communities because of their strong familial ties, their political participation, their orientation to the justice system, and their economic impact.

Police chiefs believe that intensifying immigration law enforcement undermines public safety. In often the most offensive and opportunistic ways, Trump has been particularly condemnatory of sanctuary cities, claiming that they are hotbeds for criminality and they “breed crime. Since sanctuary cities are not codified under federal law,” the term has “multiple definitions.” Essentially, they are “jurisdictions that do not ask people about their citizenship status or do not detain undocumented individuals for federal immigration authorities beyond their release date.” The report notes that, “Jurisdictions cannot impede Immigration and Customs Enforcement from gathering information on citizenship status on those that they have arrested, but some cities and local police have chosen to not fully enforce immigration laws. Some jurisdictions also choose not to detain those suspected of being undocumented following a 2014 federal court ruling that held immigration detainers were not sufficient reason to keep a person in local jail absent any other offense.” Despite Trump’s claims, “major law enforcement groups and leaders have argued that intensifying immigration enforce- ment interferes with public safety goals.”

According to state prison data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and federal prison data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, “Non-citizens currently make up six percent of the U.S. prison population while comprising seven percent of the total U.S. population.”

Almost two years ago, the American Immigration Council published a Special Report titled, “The Criminalization of Immigration in the United States.”  At the time, the reports authors—Walter Ewing, Ph.D., Daniel E. Martínez, Ph.D. and Rubén G. Rumbaut, Ph.D —called the results of Obama’s immigration policy the “great expulsion,” defining it as a period in which “immigrants, both lawfully present and unauthorized, who tend to be non-violent and non-threatening and who often have deep roots in this country,” were being deported at unprecedented rates.

The authors pointed out that “the wave of deportations…is often portrayed as a crime-fighting tool …[b]ut,…the majority of deportations carried out in the United States each year do not actually target ‘criminals’ in any meaningful sense of the word.” Now that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has been given a green light by a Trump administration bent on stoking fear about immigrants, more immigrant communities are under siege, more families are at risk of being broken up, and there is less likely to be the kind of cooperation with the police that makes for safer and healthier communities.


Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering conservative movements.