Conflict & Justice

Criminals? Immigrants are more law-abiding than native-born Americans

This story is a part of

Global Nation
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This story is a part of

Global Nation

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A prayer vigil for shooting victim Kathryn Steinle on Pier 14 in San Francisco. July 6, 2015. Steinle, 32, was fatally shot on a popular pier on July 1, 2015, allegedly by an immigrant who had been deported several times to his native Mexico. 

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REUTERS/Noah Berger

By now we’ve heard what Donald Trump, the billionaire Republican presidential candidate, has said about immigrants from Mexico — that they’re “bringing drugs … crime. They’re rapists.”

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And, he added: “Some, I assume, are good people.”

But with the killing of Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco, we have also seen Trump double down on his casting of immigrants — Mexicans, really — as criminals. He is also not alone with his views. He joins others, including Iowa Congressman Steve King, who say immigrants commit a lot of crime. Violent crime. 

But longtime experts on immigrants and crime say that is not true. “It’s an extremely slanted and distorted and kind of scared view of the world,” says Walter Ewing, a senior researcher with the American Immigration Council in Washington, DC.

First, he says, there’s this big-picture fact about immigrants in the US, legal or not: “Immigrants have been less likely than the native born to be criminals for about the past century at least,” he says. “This is a fact that seems to be consistently overlooked in the policy debate over immigration.”

To read more about his research, head here.

But the debate that the killing of Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco raises is also about the millions of immigrants here illegally — and when they should be handed over to immigration authorities. Steinle, 32, was shot to death on July 1, while walking with her father along Pier 14, a favorite spot for both tourists and locals. Steinle was from Pleasanton, a short drive from the city. No motive for the killing has surfaced. 

Steinle’s death is now part of the immigration debate because the suspect, Juan Francisco López Sánchez, is seen by some, including Trump, as an example of what’s wrong with immigration enforcement.

His case does test the system. Sánchez has been deported five times to Mexico, his home country, and his record includes a series of low-level drug offenses. After serving time in a US federal prison, he was transferred earlier this year to San Francisco, where he faced an old charge for possession of a small amount of marijuana. The charge was immediately dropped and Sánchez was released in April.

Following San Francisco’s policies, the police ignored a request by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) official to inform them that they had Sánchez in custody and to hold him for deportation. 

Why? San Francisco, along with an increasing number of cities and counties in the United States, says it won’t assist deporting immigrants for low-level crimes. For violent crimes, yes, but not for things like marijuana. Cracking down could crush community relations in a heavily immigrant area, says San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi.

Rosy Cho, an immigration lawyer in San Francisco, defends the policy. “San Francisco, as a city and county, has chosen to not play a part in that enforcement role — and we shouldn’t have to play that role,” she says. Cho’s office is just blocks from the waterfront where Sánchez allegedly killed Steinle. Every day, Cho defends immigrants whose rap sheets aren’t as extreme as Sánchez’s, but who do have records.

“But if you look at their criminal record,” she says, “it’s really for non-violent offenses and often offenses related to their living as an undocumented person in this country. They end up violating a lot of the laws that we take for granted. Not worrying about being arrested for not having a driver’s license,” she says. “I’ve been doing this for over 15 years and I can count on my hand the number of cases I’ve had where the offenses involved any kind of violence against a person or property.”

She hopes this case won’t tear down a policy that, she says, protects due process — and immigrants — from being treated more harshly because of their status.

Jessica Vaughan disagrees. She is director of policy studies at the conservative Center for Immigration Studies. “I shouldn’t have to wait until someone commits a felony or a violent crime before they’re allowed to deport someone,” says Vaughan, also a former State Department consular officer in Trinidad and Tobago.

She points to information from ICE that shows that more than 1,800 immigrants released from local jails were re-arrested between January and August 2014 — and that ICE had requested that the local jails detain those immigrants, as in the San Francisco case. Most of those arrests were for non-violent violations, including DUIs, and the 1,800 tally does not distinguish between re-arrests that resulted in convictions or whether charges were ultimately dropped.

Vaughan says it’s important for people in the community, including immigrants, to know that “those few immigrants within the population who are committing crimes are going to be held accountable for it and that they’re going to be removed instead of returned to the community.”

She says it should be one strike you’re out, regardless of the years someone has been here or rehabilitation. Advocates such as Cho say the focus should not be on undocumented immigrants whose records include minor crimes, but instead on those who commit violent offenses—and that the system in place now addresses that forcefully.

But people on both sides do agree on this — that a serious debate about the immigration system, and its flaws, must take place. And that it should include what someone with a record like Sánchez’s — with multiple deportations — says about who should stay or go, and whether communication between law enforcement and immigration officials should improve.

With the heated speeches though, and some politicians casting immigrants as criminals, the worry continues that a chance for real dialogue will get lost.