There’s little doubt that targeting immigrants who have been caught up in the criminal justice system is the immigration policing tactic of choice these days. On top of the countless claims by DHS officials that their policies target “criminal aliens,” President Obama reiterated this position in his final debate with Mitt Romney. “What I’ve also said is if we’re going to go after folks who are here illegally, we should do it smartly and go after folks who are criminals, gang bangers, people who are hurting the community, not after students, not after folks who are here just because they’re trying to figure out how to feed their families. And that’s what we’ve done,” the president said.
There are plenty of ways to point out that President Obama’s statement doesn’t reflect reality: about half of the people removed last year had no criminal history, for example, and of those who did a whopping 23% had been convicted of an immigration crime.
These facts aside, its hard to find anyone who questions the presumption that we ought to be targeting people who have run up against the criminal justice system. A group of scholars from a variety of disciplines teamed up to do just that: challenge the presumption that it makes sense to target noncitizens who have committed or been convicted of a crime. Edited by Charis E. Kubrin, Marjorie S. Zatz, and Ramiro Martínez, Jr., Punishing Immigrants: Policy, Politics, and Injustice (NYU Press 2012) features contributions by several individuals who have a deep understanding of how policies targeting immigrants play out on streets and in courtrooms across the nation.
Evelyn Cruz, the director of Arizona State University’s Immigration Law Clinic, takes a hard look at how criminal courts and attorneys deal with folks facing potential removal, a topic that hits close to home for many of crImmigration.com’s readers. Not only are “immigration and criminal law…not easily separated,” as she writes, but tying criminal and immigration consequences together as legislators have done over the last several decades places a heavy burden on everyone involved: criminal defense attorneys who must grapple with immigration law, judges who must ensure that criminal proceedings remain fundamentally fair as the Due Process Clause requires, and prosecutors who regularly lose sight of the Supreme Court’s repeated assertion that their duty “is not to win but to seek justice” (101).
Most of all, of course, intertwining criminal law and immigration law imposes a heavy toll on criminal defendants and their families, as M. Kathleen Dingeman-Cerda and Susan Bibler Coutin illustrate in their study of deportees in El Salvador. Dingeman-Cerda, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of California-Irvine, and Bibler Coutin, a professor in UCI’s School of Social Ecology, tracked down deportees who told a story that challenges the prevailing wisdom that deportation simply returns individuals to their “home.” The people that Dingeman-Cerda and Bibler Coutin interviewed, they wrote, “frequently experience removal as an exile from their home” (114).
Siphoning literally hundreds of thousands of people through the criminal justice and immigration law systems takes massive resources. Despite difficult economic conditions, Congress has maintained a healthy appetite for funding immigration policing in recent years. None of this, however, seems to make much sense given that, as a third essay points out, immigrants are less prone to crime than native-born individuals. In their contribution, María B. Vélez and Christopher J. Lyons quickly recap the “recent criminological research [that] finds either that immigration has no impact on local crime levels, or, more commonly, that immigration reduces neighborhood crime” (159). It’s somewhat misleading to describe this research as “recent” given that it conforms to about a century’s worth of data, but that’s a minor criticism.
Vélez and Lyons build off this research to develop a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between immigration and crime in cities that have traditionally been home to new waves of immigrants (gateway cities) and cities that had not experienced much immigration until recently. Their findings suggest that immigrants have a much greater impact on crime reduction in cities with an established tradition of welcoming new arrivals than in newer destinations. “[O]nly in established immigrant gateways…does the influx of immigrants into less affluent areas offset the crime-producing effects of economic disadvantage,” whereas “[i]n non-gateway cities, the influx of immigrants into disadvantaged [census] tracts does not translate into reductions in violent crime; however, neither does the influx of immigrants increase crime” (172-173).
There are other outstanding contributions to Punishing Immigrants, but these alone make buying it worthwhile. Let’s hope that as immigration law reform debates continue, policymakers and advocates will heed message that this collection sends: immigrants of all varieties contribute to our communities and treating immigrants as a threat is costly and counter-productive.