President Trump on Tuesday night blamed undocumented immigrants for violent, criminal behavior — also accusing them of hurting the economy, stealing jobs from struggling families, costing the government billions of dollars, and generally creating “an environment of lawless chaos.”
The man who began his presidential campaign talking about “rapists” coming over the border cast his crusade to deport and block undocumented immigrants as a moral choice between protecting Americans or leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and death. “What would you say to the American family that loses their jobs, their income, or a loved one, because America refused to uphold its laws and defend its borders?” he asked.
Trump’s special guests at his joint address to Congress included relatives of Americans who had been killed by undocumented immigrants. “We will never stop fighting for justice. Your loved ones will never be forgotten, we will always honor their memory,” Trump promised them.
He also touted the creation several weeks ago of a special office in the Department of Homeland Security called Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement, or VOICE. This office will be tasked with recording crimes committed by undocumented immigrants and supporting those victimized by them. Its funding will come in part from canceling all DHS “outreach or advocacy services” for undocumented immigrants.
Trump claims his immigration crackdown is a way to keep Americans safe — that he isn’t interested in tearing apart families, just in stopping violent criminals. VOICE will give the Trump administration a stream of propaganda intended to reshape the image of undocumented immigrants in the minds of the American public, from one where these migrants are simply seeking a better future for their families to one where they are hardened criminals, ready to prey on innocent Americans.
That’s a big lie. The reality is that undocumented immigrants are no more likely to commit crimes in America than anyone else. And there are plenty of migrants who are not violent criminals who are being targeted by immigration enforcement. As a result, innocent people are fearful.
“There’s so much fear in immigrant communities across the country right now,” said Joanne Lin, who works on immigration issues at the American Civil Liberties Union. “I’m getting calls from teachers, principals, educators, clergy, and these fears are not exaggerated. They’re very real fears. And people have heard about the stories of homeless men emerging from a shelter and being arrested. About a domestic violence survivor going to court for her own protection and being nabbed by immigration agents. These are the worst kinds of cases and they have ripple effects across the country.”
And even if Trump meant what he was saying about only deporting criminals — Tuesday night, for instance, he said that “As we speak, we are removing gang members, drug dealers, and criminals that threaten our communities and prey on our citizens. Bad ones are going out as I speak tonight and as I have promised” — that’s simply not a credible plan.
Most recently, President Obama made a real effort to focus immigration enforcement on criminals — and yet even then, many of the people deported did not have criminal backgrounds at all.
ICE itself keeps public data on who it removed from the country during the Obama years. Even as it got better at focusing on convicted criminals, a very substantial number were noncriminals. In Fiscal Year 2015, 139,368 convicted criminals were removed by ICE; the same year, 96,045 noncriminals were removed:
That’s just the ICE deportations, which are focused on the interior of the country. Elliot Young, a history professor at Lewis & Clark College who studies immigration, tallied the numbers using government data that includes deportations by the Border Patrol and other agencies that do removals closer to the border. He concluded that 56 percent of immigrants who were removed from the country between 2009 and 2015 were noncriminals. He made the following chart to illustrate this:
“Obama was more believable than Trump and it wasn’t true when he said it,” Young said of both presidents’ supposed focus on criminals. Even if the government is truly trying to target criminals, “the reality on the ground is that they are picking up lots of people who either don’t have any criminal convictions or they have low level misdemeanors or have crossed the border more than once and have been deported which then becomes a criminal offense.”
And the Trump administration has already expanded its focus beyond criminals. In the executive order he signed on January 25, Trump laid out “enforcement priorities” for removals by the Department of Homeland Security that include immigrants who have “committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense” or who have “abused any program related to receipt of public benefits.” These immigrants have the exact same priority as those who have been charged for criminal offenses.
The ACLU’s Joanne Lin explained that the executive order basically makes all undocumented immigrants a “priority” for removal. “So, like, jaywalking, have you ever driven without your wallet because you left your wallet at home? That begs the question whether any of us could actually meet that standard, in all candor,” she said.
“Because it doesn’t say that you’ve been arrested, you’ve been charged, you’ve been booked, it just says you ‘committed,'” she said. “It’s very wide berth. It’s written that way because under this administration they want every undocumented immigrant to be a potential priority.”