Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly’s announcement of the opening of a new office to focus on victims of crimes by immigrants looks for all the world like a cynical ploy to stigmatize a vulnerable class of people to justify inhumane immigration policies.
This upside-down approach is emblematic of President Trump’s broader immigration policy. One of his first executive orders, on January 25, promised the creation of this new office to provide “quarterly reports studying the effects of the victimization by criminal aliens present in the United States.”
But this issue has already been studied exhaustively.
The reality is that immigrants in the United States commit crime at lower rates than people born here. By analyzing census data of incarcerated populations, researchers have found that crime rates among US immigrant populations are as little as a fifth that of people born in the United States.
The fact that immigrant crime rates are so low is not a surprise to anyone who has actually examined the data. The same conclusion has emerged in the findings of commissions and researchers who have examined the subject since 1901.
On the other hand, there is good reason to believe that immigrants are more vulnerable to crime themselves, partly because undocumented immigrants may fear reporting crimes to the police.
Amid fears of a deportation crackdown, the Los Angeles Police Department has said that reports of sexual assault by the city’s Latino population have dropped 25 percent compared with last year.
In Philadelphia, police statistics showed 50 fewer reports of violent crime made by Latinos in January 2017, compared to the year before.
So why is the Trump administration so focused on the untenable idea of an immigrant crime wave?
Only Trump knows for sure, but we do know that scapegoating like Trump’s has provided politicians the world over with an alluring narrative in which they can wish society’s ills away by pretending they come from outside.
This is a tactic that has been used by abusive governments around the world to devastating effect. In the last year, Human Rights Watch documented how in Venezuela, the Maduro administration has justified the maltreatment and arbitrary deportation of Colombian nationals, many of whom were authorized immigrants, by claiming they are responsible for high crime rates.
Without due process, Venezuelan police and the military conducted raids on low-income and immigrant communities, arbitrarily detained immigrants, evicted them from their homes, and deported them.
In Kenya, we called out the government for scapegoating Somali refugees as terrorists to justify plans to close refugee camps.
As a result, Pakistan expelled hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees over the last year, in what is probably the largest unlawful return of refugees in recent times.
The tactic of stigmatizing whole groups of people as criminal has also been used against the Roma population in Europe. In several countries Roma children have been forced to attend segregated schools, and Roma face regular harassment by police. It has been used against migrants in Greece, who are abused by the police; and Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, who are denied citizenship and victimized by security forces.
By all indications, the Trump administration will be doubling down on its own anti-immigrant rhetoric in the months to come. All victims of crime, immigrant or not, committed by anyone, immigrant or not, should be able to secure redress and accountability.
But the Trump administration’s efforts to emphasize the crimes of immigrants does not really seem like it has anything to do with with helping victims. It seems more like a crude and unsettlingly familiar effort to demonize immigrants.