Originally published by LA Times
Two recent stories about heinous crimes allegedly committed by people living in the country illegally have again prompted immigration hard-liners to mischaracterize such migrants as a menace to public safety. The crimes at issue here are indeed serious, but the suspects’ immigration status has little to do with their criminal acts.
One man in San Francisco stands accused of posing as a Lyft driver to rape female ride-hailers, and another man in Whittier has been charged with taking a chainsaw to his wife, who somehow managed to survive the horrific attack. The alleged rapist is from Peru; the alleged chainsaw-wielder is from Mexico, and had been deported back there 11 times since 2005, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials told reporters.
To suggest that these men reflect the threat posed by people living in this country illegally, however, is just as ridiculous as suggesting that Timothy McVeigh illustrates the threat posed by Army veterans. A number of studies have found that immigrants — whether here legally or not — commit crimes at lower rates than do native-born Americans. In fact, one study of people living in Texas found that immigrants who are undocumented commit fewer crimes than legal immigrants.
Our country’s identity and economy are inextricably tied to immigration.
Some hard-liners shrug off that reality and argue that an individual crime would not have occurred if the perpetrator had been kept out of the country. But that argument doesn’t persuade. It echoes the death penalty advocates who say executions might not deter others from killing, but executing a convicted killer deters that particular person from killing again. That’s no way to frame policy.
Violent criminals living in the country illegally shouldn’t be here, and the government is right to track them down and seek their deportation. But holding up individual violent crimes as a broad indictment of immigrants does nothing to suggest a solution for the problem of illegal immigration. That the chainsaw assailant had been deported nearly a dozen times is evidence that border enforcement needs to be more effective (and no, a wall running the length of the border will not help). It is not evidence that people living here under the radar pose a public safety risk. The vast majority of immigrants, regardless of their legal status, are here trying to improve their lives and those of their families.
But such facts do not deter the hard-liners from using one-off criminal acts to tar immigrants, part of a continuum of xenophobia that helped propel Donald Trump to the White House. The president’s repeated characterizations of MS-13 gang members as invaders (many gang members are U.S. citizens) is, at best, demagoguery meant to inflame the passions of his nationalist followers. The president conveniently fails to mention that MS-13 arose here in the U.S. among Salvadoran refugees who fled a violent civil war that the U.S. was deeply involved in. Those refugees formed gangs in Los Angeles and other U.S. cities as protection from existing ethnic gangs there before returning to El Salvador to continue their criminal enterprise.
The reality is that our country’s identity and economy are inextricably tied to immigration. Granted, we’ve succumbed to bouts of xenophobia and racism in the past when deciding who is allowed to settle here. It wasn’t that long ago that the U.S. heavily favored immigrants from northwest Europe and strictly curtailed arrivals from Asia, policies that changed with the 1965 Immigration Act. Regardless, for more than a half-century the U.S. has been the globe’s top destination for immigrants, and about one-fifth of the world’s immigrants now call the U.S. home.
Immigrants have founded some of our most successful and highest-employing companies. Six of last year’s Nobel Prize winners in physics, chemistry and medicine are immigrants living and working in the United States. Since 2000, at least 33 of the 85 American Nobel winners were immigrants to this country. But immigrants exert influence far beyond the ranks of Fortune 500 executives and Nobel laureates. They include the people who plant and harvest crops, staff assembly lines, build and maintain houses, and work in or own restaurants. In short, they are crucial cogs in our economic engine.
A country has the right, of course, to determine who gets to cross its borders and how long they may stay. But the fear-mongering propelling the anti-immigrant attitudes from the White House not only rises from a blinkered sense of what America is as a country and a society, it imperils both.