Immigrants and Crime

The blog has been quiet because, well, there have been one or two things in the world of immigration keeping me busy: panicked clients, panicked communities, curious students, people wanting good information to share with the panicked people in their own lives.

Ok, that was more than one or two things.

And now the President is going to legalize millions! But not with citizenship, we’ll keep them second-class! But no, he remembered during the State of the Union speech that immigrants are criminals and he is going to be tough!

So much to write about, but this is what I want to address: You see, about a week ago, I got an email from someone I have never met, who lives hundreds of miles away, with a charming email handle (Skullkrikkes–what is that?), hoping that I would be the next person raped by an immigrant. He (you never guessed  skullkrikkes turned out to be a guy) was trying to get under my skin. He didn’t, except to present himself as Exhibit A of something I have been fighting against, and for, for about a decade.

The idea that people are complicated. That very few people are all bad, and even fewer are all good. Except my dog. (Oh, right, she’s not a person. Try telling her that.)

Highlighting victims of crimes committed by immigrants, the way 45 did at the State of the Union, equates immigrants with criminality in a dangerous way. Almost worse, it implies that our personal safety depends on getting rid of immigrants. Then it will all be ok!

But immigrants are, if anything, less likely than native-born people to commit crimes, especially violent crimes. From the American Immigration Council’s Report The Criminalization of Immigration in the United States:

innumerable studies have confirmed two simple yet powerful truths about the relationship between immigration and crime: immigrants are less likely to commit serious crimes or be behind bars than the native-born, and high rates of immigration are associated with lower rates of violent crime and property crime.

We know this. It’s just that lots of Americans do not want it to be true. Because that means their hope for insulating themselves in a crime-free bubble by deporting immigrants isn’t true. It means they are vulnerable to crime. To pain. To suffering. To being human.

There are no guarantees. Every fully formed adult knows this. We may wish otherwise, but as Robert Winder wrote:

We can park our chair on the beach as often as we please, and cry at the oncoming waves, but the tide will not listen, nor the sea retreat. (quoted in the beautiful, beautiful book by recently deceased sociologist  Zygmunt Baumun, Strangers at the Door.)

Look, skullkrikkes, I do fear being raped. When one in five women in America experiences rape, well, I’d be foolish not to worry. But guess what: deporting immigrants doesn’t make me safer.

You know what does make me safer? Working to promote dignity and respect, helping to build communities where people trust each other, and seeing each person before me as flawed and doing his or her best. Even the sour-looking woman who doesn’t share the sidewalk (and sometimes yells at the crossing guards). Even that guy who cut me off on 95 last week. Even the Cameroonian construction worker who just got arrested for being drunk and disorderly because he had three beers to numb his own pain and started dancing on the sidewalk. Even the immigrant mother who used a fake social security number to work and provide for her kids. Even the young South Asian teen who took the dare from his high school friends and sped recklessly.

Yes, some immigrants commit violent crimes. Lord knows I don’t have any fondness for the MS-13 and M-18 gangs who terrorize the very immigrant communities I try to support. And I know our federal law enforcement authorities investigate and prosecute and punish those crimes. But let’s be honest. When we sweep the construction worker and mother and the teenager up as “criminal immigrants,” we have lost our shared humanity. Did they commit crimes? Yes. Can you not imagine yourself doing the same thing?

Really? Because I can.

I have definitely had times when I drank too much to numb something awful I was feeling (hello: divorce)* . If I could not work legally and my beautiful child was hungry, yeah, I’d borrow someone’s social security number to find work. And I acted like the South Asian kid who sped recklessly (once!) in high school–and I’ve lived in gratitude ever since that nobody got hurt, and that I’m white and far less likely to suffer the punitive consequences anyway.

I’ll take my compassion over your fear any day.

*Don’t worry. I’m all good now.

Want to read more? Here’s a thing I wrote about being complicated.