Truth vs. perception of crime rates for immigrants

Incendiary comments made by Donald Trump and a random killing of a California woman have added fuel to national debate on the contributions of and concerns about undocumented immigrants. William Brangham speaks to Marielena Hincapié of the National Immigration Law Center, Marc Rosenblum of the Migration Policy Institute and Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies.

Read the Full Transcript


    We turn now to immigration. The complex issue has remained frozen in Washington for years, but is quickly heating up outside the capital.

    Our William Brangham unravels the debate.


    The firestorm started when in his announcement that he was running for president, Donald Trump turned to the topic of immigration.

    DONALD TRUMP (R), Presidential Candidate: When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're not sending you. They're not sending you. They're sending people that have lots of problems. And they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.


    In the weeks following, major businesses connected to Trump backed away from partnerships and projects with him. They included NBC, Univision, Macy's, ESPN, and the Professional Golf Association.

    For his part, Trump stood by his comments. But then a tragedy in San Francisco added fuel to the fire; 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle was shot and killed at the end of last month. Undocumented immigrant Juan Lopez-Sanchez confessed to a reporter that he shot her, but said it was an accident.

    All this has just inflamed the debate about immigration in the U.S., whether immigrants are a positive force in the country or whether they should be feared. There are currently more than 41 million immigrants in America. Over 11 million are estimated to be here illegally.

    To help us understand what we know about the nation's immigrants, legal and illegal, I'm joined by three people who have studied the research.

    Marielena Hincapie is the executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, an immigration rights group. Marc Rosenblum is from the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. And Jessica Vaughan is with the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for tougher border security.

    Welcome to all three of you.

  • MARC ROSENBLUM, Migration Policy Institute:

    Thank you.


    Marc Rosenblum, why don't I start with you first?

    Donald Trump is saying that immigrants come to the country and they commit a disproportionate amount of crime. You have looked at this data quite a bit. Is he right?


    You know, it's a very persistent stereotype, but there's a lot of research on it, looking at prison populations and looking at city crime rates.

    And what it shows is that immigrants are disproportionately unlikely to be in prison. The prison population doesn't have a lot of immigrants in it. And when you look at crime rates and correlate them with immigration populations, immigrants are — cities with lots of immigrants don't have lots of crime.


    Sarah (sic) Vaughan, I know you have looked at this data as well. What do you make of this analysis?

    JESSICA VAUGHAN, Center for Immigration Studies: Well, no, we have looked at it very deeply.

    And what the research shows is that there's no evidence that immigrants are either more or less likely to commit crimes than anyone else in the population. The studies that claim to find that immigrants are somehow more law-abiding than Americans are based on very flawed data, because that doesn't identify correctly necessarily what someone's immigration status is.

    What we do know is that there are certain types of crime that are very closely associated with illegal immigration, drug crimes, gang crimes, smuggling, trafficking, identity theft, so that the areas of the country that have those kinds of problems need to have some mechanism for working a good — they have a legitimate public safety reason for working with immigration enforcement.

    But I don't think that's really the most relevant policy question for lawmakers here. And that is, we know that some illegal immigrants are here committing crime, so what do we do with those illegal immigrants who are committing crimes? How do we handle that?


    Marielena Hincapie, why does this perception persist? I mean, Donald Trump is not the only one that has raised concerns about immigrants and crime.

    Why do you think we keep talking about this?

  • MARIELENA HINCAPIE, Executive Director, National Immigration Law Center:

    That's a great question.

    And I think what we have to remember is what's at issue here is really that this is about a human tragedy. We are talking about Kate has been murdered in San Francisco, and this is not about immigration, but the perception, the narrative out there really has its basis in the scapegoating, the race, which, often — for example, the Willie Hortons of the world that fuel those myths of whether it's a black man or a brown man, like this particular defendant.

    And that's often at the root of this. And it really is about society's implicit bias and the fact that politicians like Donald Trump are exploiting this particular tragedy in San Francisco to move an anti-immigrant agenda.


    Marc Rosenblum, what do you make of that? Is that true? Is this primarily, in your mind, driven by racial animus?


    It's a persistent stereotype that goes back a hundred years that immigrants commit crimes.

    But I would agree with Marielena that you certainly see politicians and political entrepreneurs sort of exploiting this to connect these incidents to immigration more broadly.


    Jessica Vaughan, what do you think about that? Do you think this is racism?


    No, of course, not.

    I mean, obviously, it's not true that immigrants don't commit crimes. Of course they do. And, again, the issue is how do we handle that fraction of the immigrant population that has been committing crimes and has been contributing to crime rates in our communities?

    The logical answer is, they should be removed. Crime is not a job Americans won't do. There is no reason to allow people who are here in defiance of our laws to stay here if they are contributing to crime in our communities, and, again, it does exist. It needs to be acknowledged, and law enforcement agencies need to be cooperating to make sure that they are finding those criminal aliens who are preying on people in the communities and deporting them as expeditiously as possible.

    And the problem is, is that there are certain areas, like San Francisco, where political leaders have imposed policies on law enforcement officers to block immigration enforcement. And the people they end up protecting in those cases are actually the criminals, because they're allowed to stay in the community and continue preying on people there.

    So, again, there is no — if we can't agree on removing illegal immigrants who have committed crimes, then who can we deport?


    Marielena Hincapie, let's talk a little bit about federal policy.

    As you know, in 2005, the federal government stepped up its enforcement, and instead of just — when they caught people who were coming across the border, instead of just sending them home, they started putting them into the judicial system. And I wonder what's your take on how that policy has played out? How has the federal government's role contributed to this?


    Yes, I think Jessica is right. The fact is that the administration — and both the Bush administration and most recently the Obama administration have been enforcing laws, they have prioritized people who have committed crimes.

    But, again, that's not what is at issue here. Why — San Francisco, for example, is not an isolated case. There are over 300 local and city and counties across the countries where law enforcement leaders themselves have decided that they needed to change the policies to restore trust between the communities and the police, so that there was — individuals would serve as witnesses and would report crimes, whether they were committed by another immigrant or by a U.S. citizen, so, again, the fact that we're suddenly taking this particular individual case in San Francisco and jumping to try to make changes in the federal law, when, in fact, the federal law already exists.


    I would like to ask something of all three of you. All three of you care deeply about immigration. You spend a lot of time thinking about it, writing about it, talking about it.

    Does something like what happened with Donald Trump, when he comes out — and regardless of what you think of what he said, does this help us have this debate, or is this toxic to the debate?


    I mean, I think one of the most interesting things about the Donald Trump comments is how it highlights the divide within the Republican Party, and how, you know, Republicans are struggling to respond positively or negatively to him.

    And, ultimately, that's really going to drive the policy-making agenda, is sort of how that party sorts out its conflict over immigration. So, in that sense — it's been a little bit productive in that sense, but, you know, it does distract from real — you know, to focus so much on immigrants and crime does distract from the issues that do dominate immigration policy.


    Jessica Vaughan, what is your take on that? Do you think this is helping the debate, helping the conversation move forward?


    Well, the advocates in our country for giving amnesty to illegal aliens and for expanding immigration would like people to believe that everyone who is coming over here is harmless and here for good reasons.

    And what Donald Trump did point out is that, you know, that not all immigrants are here for those reasons, that some of them are committing crimes, and we need to have policies in place that ensure that they are being removed as quickly as possible, and that local jurisdictions are not allowed to obstruct immigration enforcement for political reasons, which leads inevitably to people who should be removed getting released back on to the streets.

    And this is something that Congress needs to address to crack down on sanctuary jurisdictions and make it clear that they're expected to comply with immigration law and that they may be penalized if they don't.



    All right, Marielena Hincapie, can I get a last take on — you about this?



    Yes, Donald Trump, the reason there is such a reaction to Donald Trump's comments is because, in 2015, in the United States, we are no longer going to accept that level of intolerance in our nation, especially from someone who is trying to become president of the United States.

    So I do think that, as Marc said, it helps the debate, only from the perspective that it helps us to see which politicians really believe in a vision in our country that is inclusive and which ones have an intolerant and racist perspective that basically labels all of us immigrants as criminals.

    And that is definitely not a fact. And the studies show that, in fact, the majority of immigrants are not committing crimes.


    All right, thank you all very much for joining us tonight.


    Thank you.



Listen to this Segment