Research | Fall 2019 Issue

The Facts About Immigration

President Trump and his supporters claim illegal immigrants are bringing danger to America. They're not.

By Richard E. Meyer

THE POLICE OFFICER TOLD AMADA ARMENTA to get out of her car. She sat on the curb.

Armenta, an assistant professor at UCLA, was in Mississippi on her way home from research in Tennessee. The officer had followed her for six blocks until she pulled into a gas station, then followed her again when she left. As she headed for a highway on-ramp, he flashed his lights and cranked his siren.

“Will you consent to a search of your vehicle?”

Armenta knew that the officer needed either her agreement or “probable cause,” a legal term meaning “reasonable grounds,” to conduct a search. She refused permission. He summoned another officer, then a K-9 unit. A crowd watched. “It was quite the scene,” she says in her book, Protect, Serve, and Deport. “Three police cars with flashing lights, three officers conferring with one another. A German shepherd, my gray economy car, and me, still sitting on the curb.”

At her passenger door, the dog sniffed and pawed but soon lost interest. Its handler led it around the car a second time. Then he pulled on its leash and spoke excitedly. The dog jumped up and down, barked and lunged. The officers told her that the dog had “indicated,” giving them probable cause to search. “I watched as the officers opened each car door and rifled through my possessions.

“One officer looked through the glove compartment, under the seats and mats, and ran his fingers in the creases of the car’s seats. Another officer squatted as he inspected the back seat and poked through a small pile of trash. Another had his head buried in the trunk, where he rummaged through items I had haphazardly thrown in before I left: sociology books, Taco Bell wrappers, clothes, food and a bottle of coconut rum. Even though I knew there was nothing in my car that could get me in trouble, it was humiliating and intrusive.

“After 10 minutes, they gave up. They seemed disappointed. I was free to go, but they had wasted almost two hours of my time. As I stood up and headed toward my car, the policeman called out a question.

“‘Ma’am, if you had nothing in your car,’ he said, slowly, ‘why were you so nervous?’ “‘I’m by myself. I’m far from home. This is Mississippi, and you’re the police.’”

Professor Armenta, a Latina born and raised in the United States, does not intend to imply that she had gotten even a small taste of what it is like to be an immigrant, or a hint of the fear that confronts the undocumented. But she got a taste of what it is like to be distrusted. “The officer’s intrusion marked me as someone who was out of place, or ‘suspicious,’” she says in her book. “Of course, with the privileges of a formal education, unaccented English, citizenship and a valid driver’s license, my encounter with the police was a minor, albeit unpleasant, inconvenience. … [But] a system of laws, institutional policies and bureaucratic practices ensures that these types of police encounters unfold differently for residents who do not have the benefit of legal presence.”

“Truth Decay”

Protect, Serve, and Deport was published in 2017. Suspicion of immigrants has grown even more pronounced today. The reason: Fact deniers say immigration causes crime. The truth: Immigration decreases crime. But deniers are winning the day. A landmark study last year by the RAND Corporation, a global policy think tank, reported: “In national political and civil discourse, disagreement over facts appears to be greater than ever.” Aptly, RAND called its study “Truth Decay.” Some deniers, Rand says, are “spinning facts to the point of fiction.”

Those who have been fooled include a large number of ordinary people. A 2016 poll by the Pew Research Center found that 27 percent of Americans say undocumented immigrants are likely to commit serious crimes. Among Republicans, the number climbs to 42 percent. Unsurprisingly, some are members of nativist organizations. But, more significantly, the fact deniers include the president of the United States. Donald Trump has called undocumented Mexican immigrants “rapists,” “criminals” and “bad hombres.”

In his nomination acceptance speech to the 2016 Republican National Convention, he said: “They are being released by the tens of thousands into our communities with no regard for the impact on public safety. … We are going to build a great border wall to stop illegal immigration, to stop the gangs and the violence, and to stop the drugs from pouring in.”

Since taking office two and a half years ago, President Trump has toughened federal immigration enforcement, made it easier to take undocumented immigrants into custody and declared that his wall, along the border with Mexico, is necessary, based on his perception that unauthorized immigrants are a substantial and dangerous source of crime in the United States.

That perception is wrong.

Immigrant communities are safer

Here are the facts:

“Decades of research conclude that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than the native-born,” Professor Armenta writes. A member of the urban planning faculty at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, Armenta specializes in connections between the immigrant enforcement system and the criminal justice system. Scholars, she writes, have found that immigrants “decrease crime because crime rates tend to fall in places with expanding immigrant populations, including those who are undocumented.”

Twenty years of data support that finding. Charis Kubrin, professor of criminology, law and society at UC Irvine, and Graham Ousey, a sociologist at the College of William and Mary, who specializes in immigration and crime, say their examination of the data shows that “cities and neighborhoods with greater concentrations of immigrants have lower rates of crime and violence.

“In other words,” they write, “more immigration equals less crime.”

This includes unauthorized immigration. An analysis this year by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering criminal justice, compared crime rates from the FBI with estimates of undocumented population by the Pew Research Center. It showed that “growth in illegal immigration does not lead to higher local crime rates.”

The analysis found that both violent and property crime decreased in immigrant areas, consistent with a decline in crime across the United States. It also found that “crime went down at similar rates regardless of whether the undocumented population rose or fell.” Actually, “Areas with more unauthorized migration appeared to have larger drops in crime, although the difference was small.”

Indeed, the libertarian Cato Institute, associated with Charles and David Koch, says that both “legal and illegal immigrants were less likely to be incarcerated than native-born Americans in 2017, just as they were in 2014 and 2016.”

Michael T. Light, associate professor of sociology and Chicano/Latino studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Ty Miller, assistant professor of sociology at Winthrop University in South Carolina, whose specialties include immigration, analyzed statistics to control for economic and demographic factors. They found:

“Increases in the undocumented immigrant population within states are associated with significant decreases in the prevalence of violence.”

Professor Armenta offers two additional facts:

President Trump cites Mara Salvatrucha, the vicious gang known as MS-13, as evidence that immigrants bring crime to the United States. Democrats, he has tweeted, “don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our country, like MS-13.”

But Mara Salvatrucha “is not an immigration problem,” Armenta said in an interview. “MS-13 originated in Los Angeles, and then it got exported through deportation to Central America. It’s not about immigration. It’s about gangs. Anytime that immigrants are associated with heinous and violent crimes, it becomes construed as an immigration problem. It’s wrong to act as if this is about immigration.”

Her second fact is about those who consider undocumented immigrants to be criminals simply because they are here without authorization. In fact, she writes, “Unlawful presence in the United States is a civil violation, not a criminal offense.”

What gives?

What drives truth decay? RAND cites four possible causes:

  1. Cognitive bias.
    “The ways in which human beings process information and make decisions cause people to look for opinions and analysis that confirm preexisting beliefs, more heavily weight personal experience over data and facts, and rely on mental shortcuts and the opinions of others in the same social networks.”
    European researchers Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber call this “myside bias.”
  2. Changes in the information system.
    RAND says they are:
    a) “The rise of social media, which drastically increases the volume and speed of information flow, as well as the relative volume of opinion over fact.”
    b) “The transformation of the media market facing traditional newspapers and broadcasting companies, including the shift to a 24-hour news cycle, the increasing partisanship of some news sources, and the intensification of profit motives.”
    c) “Wide dissemination of disinformation and misleading or biased information.”
  3. Competing demands on the educational system that limit its ability to keep pace with changes in the information system.
    “As the information system has become increasingly complex,” RAND says, “competing demands and fiscal constraints on the educational system have reduced the emphasis on civic education, media literacy and critical thinking. Students need exactly this type of knowledge to effectively evaluate information sources, identify biases and separate fact from falsehood.” One result: “Distrust in institutions (that supply information), while evident in previous eras, is more severe today.”

  4. Political, sociodemographic and economic polarization.
    “Polarization contributes both to increasing disagreement regarding facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data and to the blurring of the line between opinion and fact by creating opposing sides, each with its own narrative, worldview and facts. The groups on each side become insular in their thinking and communication, creating a closed environment in which false information proliferates. “Data suggest that political, social and demographic polarization are not only severe and worsening … but also overlapping and reinforcing one another.”Professor Armenta adds a fifth cause:
  5. Fear, usually of the future.
    “People have an idea of what the nation is supposed to be, and their ideas about it are based on their families, their upbringing,” she said. “It’s usually looking toward the past; they imagine some America that used to be in a particular way. And then they use something that has changed, like the fact that there’s more immigration, as a stand-in for the cause of all the other ways that life is harder today. So the fact that we don’t have robust social safety nets, that people can’t rely on working for a firm for their whole lives, that the firm can fire them and not offer them pensions, then immigrants become the stand-in as a scapegoat for all sorts of misfortunes that are a result of deindustrialization or devaluation of workers, etc.”

She does not discount racism.

“I think racism is and always has been connected to nativism,” Armenta said. Even the Irish “weren’t considered white in the same way that Western Europeans were considered white.”

Not that fact deniers are likely to think of themselves as racist.

“No one wants to think that they’re individually racist, so they’re unwilling to call out ways that, say, political rhetoric or social structures are examples of racism.”

Responding to falsehoods

Professor Margaret Peters sat at her desk and choked back anger.

Fact deniers, she said, are dangerous — to immigrants and to academic research, as well. But she has learned to calibrate her response.

“Do I feel anger? Yes.

“Do I get angry? I try not to.”

Peters, an associate professor of political science at UCLA, has spent 15 years studying immigration at the Ph.D. level and beyond. Immigration, she said, simply does not increase crime. “It’s very frustrating to have John Doe from off the street saying, ‘I saw this thing on Fox News, and clearly you’re wrong.’

“The worst thing you can do is to say, ‘You’re stupid,’ or ‘YOU are just wrong.’ Instead, try to be nice. ‘Well, Fox News isn’t always the most credible source.’

“If you put somebody on the defensive, they are never going to see your side.”

Meanwhile, fact deniers cause suspicions that create jeopardy. (Did the German shepherd actually “indicate” at Professor Armenta’s car, or did it react to its handler’s deliberate excitement and tugging on its leash?)

Fact deniers, Peters said, also undermine the credibility of academic research and of researchers themselves. This, in turn, reduces the financial support necessary to conduct studies.

All of which makes it easy to be angry. But because confronting deniers with anger only causes them to dig in, Peters said, it is better to focus on the small number who are not true believers.

And fight bad facts with good facts.

Richard E. Meyer

Richard E. Meyer

Meyer is the senior editor of Blueprint. He has been a White House correspondent and national news features writer for the Associated Press and a roving national correspondent and editor of long-form narratives at the Los Angeles Times.

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