By Philip L. Torrey*
For the past couple of weeks, many of us have rightly focused on the chaos that Trump’s hasty and ill-conceived executive orders on immigration have created. But buried in the fine print of the “Interior Enforcement” executive order is a provision that signals an equally alarming threat; one that has gone largely unnoticed. The ominous provision signals the makings of a new propaganda machine that is designed to fuel Trump’s anti-immigrant campaign by twisting facts to cook up a crisis that doesn’t exist.
More specifically, Trump has directed ICE (the federal agency responsible for immigration enforcement) to collect and study data on what Trump has long—and falsely—alleged to be a major public safety problem: the criminal behavior of immigrants in this country. With a sweep of his pen, Trump has created an ICE public relations office that is charged with providing “quarterly reports studying the effects of the victimization by criminal aliens present in the United States.” At first glance, the professed cause seems noble. But narrowing these studies to only those crimes perpetrated by immigrants and shoehorning such a study into the agency responsible for immigration enforcement is both irresponsible and dangerous. ICE has neither the time nor the expertise to be advancing someone else’s social science theories of crime.
Here’s the truth on immigrants and crime. Numerous studies have shown that the crime rate among immigrants is significantly lower than among native-born U.S. citizens. In the 1990s and 2000s, as the immigrant population dramatically grew in the United States, FBI data shows that the violent crime rate simultaneously plummeted. These and other statistics demonstrate that the vast majority of immigrants are law-abiding, contributing members of society.
The current facts on immigrants and crime are not convenient for the White House. So, instead of adjusting his policies in accordance with facts, Trump is positioning himself to adjust facts in accordance with his policies. Now under pressure to generate “alternative facts” for the President’s war on immigrants, the likely result of this new directive on ICE will be to politicize the low number of tragic and heinous crimes committed by immigrants. Those rare incidents will be used to label all immigrants as dangerous felons. In doing so, we will be diverting valuable resources, time, and attention away from studies that could truthfully elaborate on proven causes of crime, such as poverty and lack of access to education.
This diversionary tactic has now become a pattern with this administration. New Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently said: “We have a crime problem. I wish the blip — I wish the rise that we are seeing in crime in America today were some sort of aberration or a blip. My best judgment . . . is that this is a dangerous, permanent trend that places the health and safety of the American people at risk.” There has been a slight uptick in the homicide rate, but murder and other violent crime rates remain at the lowest they have been in nearly 40 years. Again facts are warped to propel a campaign of fear-mongering.
We should be interested in improving public safety. But we should also be truthful both about the level of safety we currently enjoy and the true causes of threats to that safety. In the midst of the many demands on our fractured attention from the Trump administration, we must remain skeptical of a new campaign, founded on false premises, that tells us otherwise.
Ironically, in all this talk of public safety, the Trump administration has decided to attack one of the surest paths to improving it: immigrant-friendly policing strategies. So-called “sanctuary” policies have been shown to improve public safety while simultaneously decreasing poverty and unemployment rates. One such policy is the Massachusetts Safe Communities Act, which is currently being considered on Beacon Hill. Governor Baker would be wise to rethink his opposition to the bill and instead support the measure as a means of promoting public safety and thwarting President Trump’s unfounded war on immigrants.
In the meantime, we must closely watch both the Department of Justice and this new ICE press office and challenge any “alternative facts” early and often. Our safety as a free republic depends on it.
*Philip L. Torrey is a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Senior Clinical Instructor of the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program, and Supervising Attorney for the Harvard Immigration Project.