Debunked by Data: The Myth of Immigration and Crime

Is the U.S.’s focus on small-time immigration infringements leaving the nation more vulnerable?

Marie Gottschalk: In the moment we’re talking a lot about reform and the potential now to build down the carceral state and we’ve ignored or overlooked places where it’s rapidly growing. And so what we’re seeing now is law enforcement and immigration enforcement are colliding or converging where they used to be quite separate systems. And we're essentially criminalizing the enforcement of immigration policy. So during the Reagan years we had about 20,000 or 25,000 deportations a year. Under President Obama we’ve had about 400,000 deportations a year until recently. So it’s a dramatic increase in the number of people that are being deported. Many of them being deported back to countries that they left as children where they don’t speak the language and being deported for minor violations or for violations that they committed many years ago and have not committed a serious crime since then. So now what we’re seeing is very similar – I feel like we’re living through the 1960s and 70s again where we criminalized race in the 1960s and 70s and now this great unease that we have in the society and anxiety has landed on immigrants. And that’s even prior to Isis and the San Bernardino killings and things like that.

And so we’ve created this misperception now that immigrants bring crime and increase crime rates when the data actually tells us that immigrant populations suppress crime rates in gateway cities. And in cities that are not gateways for immigrants with smaller cities they neither suppress nor increase the crime rate. But we’ve created this misimpression now that immigrants are bringing lots of crime to the United States and are destabilizing force.

No I think one point that’s important to make is that the largest population now in the federal prison system are Hispanics. They’re the largest plurality, larger than whites and larger than African Americans. And many of them are there for immigration related offenses. So again when we try to think about the carceral state in black/white terms we really need to think about immigration because again drug crimes fueled a lot of the growth of the federal prison system but immigration crimes are far few and much more. And the other thing to think about immigration is that if we care about crime and we care about protecting our borders prosecuting so many petty immigration offenses and so punitively is taking up all the resources of people on the border and so that as many federal prosecutors will tell you we’ve had many studies don that they’re not pursuing the big drug crimes, they’re not pursuing the big money laundering, the big trafficking of weapons in part because so many resources are going into prosecuting and taking care of these petty immigration offenses. So that in fact we’re making ourselves more vulnerable rather than less vulnerable by having 80 percent of our prosecutors time and their cases being taken up with petty immigrants at the cost of these much more serious crimes and threats.


From the "No Irish Need Apply" signs in the 19th century to the Chinese Exclusion Act, only repealed in 1943, right up to current day America’s discrimination against Hispanic emigrants; for a country of immigrants, America has a surprisingly entrenched history of persecuting people who have followed in their footsteps.

Marie Gottschalk is an author and professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania who seeks to bring facts back into the policy equation: immigrant populations actually suppress crime rates in gateway cities, and do not alter the crime rates in non-gateway cities. Immigrants do not bring crime, so then why do Hispanics make up the largest population in federal prisons?

Gottschalk believes it has to do with the criminalization of America’s immigration enforcement, and she believes that this hyper-vigilance is, in fact, making America more vulnerable. 

Due to legislation signed by Governor Robert Bentley, police in Alabama have the right to determine a person’s legal status in any stop, detention, or arrest as long as they have "reasonable suspicion." Governor Bentley also wants to check the documentation of every public school student in the state. According to Gottschalk, prosecutors and border patrol officers are spending so much time and resources on these petty immigration offenses, that they don’t have enough time and resources to go after the bigger offenders. Trafficking, drug dealing, money laundering, and other major crimes may slip through the cracks because the focus is pointed at petty immigration offenses. Incarceration numbers are at an all-time high, but our country is, in fact, more vulnerable than ever. 

Marie Gottschalk's most recent book is Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics.

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