At a time when an immigration reform that would legalize the status of the 10-million plus population of unauthorized immigrants seems like a distant prospect at best, there are virtually no immigration reformers arguing against the removal of criminal aliens. Instead, there is broad consensus – liberals and conservatives, restrictionists and pro-immigration reformers – that criminal aliens should be removed from the country.
Among liberal immigration reformers, there is common ground in the position that illegal immigrants should “get right with the law” – registering, paying fines and taxes, and learning English – and only if they don’t have a criminal record become eligible for legal status. Conservative Democrats like U.S. Rep. David Price (NC) often couch their support for immigration reform on having Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) rid the nation of all criminal aliens.
Which seems reasonable – at first. Why, after all, should our country tolerate immigrants who don’t obey our laws when so many others are desperate to stay or come here?
One problem is ICE’s Criminal Alien Program, along with associated programs like Secure Communities, often net more noncriminal immigrants in their sweeps and background checks than the targeted criminal aliens. Another problem with accepting the premise that criminal aliens have not place in our country is that ICE’s definition is so broad – including all legal and immigrants convicted of a crime. This categorization extends to immigrants convicted of illegal entry or re-entry as part of an especially aggressive ICE program called Operation Streamline.
ICE reports that it is deporting an increasing number of criminal aliens every year. But many of those categorized as criminal aliens are not what most Americans would label criminals, including the tens of thousands who have been convicted of drug possession.
Support for programs and reform proposals that target criminal aliens is a slippery slope.
But what about the violent and otherwise dangerous immigrants that the Department of Homeland Security says it targets? Who could dispute that our security and our safety aren’t served by an immigrant crackdown that removes these unsavory immigrants from our midst?
While far outside accepted debate over immigration reform, a strong case can be made that we should keep our “criminal aliens” at home. Back in 1998, when criminal alien targeting had just started as the result of new anti-immigrant legislation in 1996, the Inter-American Dialogue looked at the deportation of criminal aliens from a “geopolitical perspective.”
As the drive to remove criminal aliens deepens and as we consider the criminality raging across our border in Mexico and Central America, it is refreshing to consider the findings of this provocative report. Written by Margaret H. Taylor and T. Alexander Aleinikoff, the paper, titled “The Deportation of Criminal Aliens: A Geopolitical Perspective” deserves our attention.
Although rare, there have been journalistic treatments of the boomerang effect and the transborder consequences of criminal alien deportations, but scholarly treatments such as this are especially valuable. As the authors observed:
Countries in the Western Hemisphere report a number of problems stemming from the increase in criminal alien deportations. Many deportees return as strangers to their country of origin. A lack of advance notice and the absence of any programs to monitor recently-returned offenders impedes receiving countries from assisting with their reintegration. The result, according to many foreign diplomats, is a high rate of recidivism that contributes to sharply rising crime rates. These problems implicate U.S. interests and raise concerns for the international community.
“Out of sight, out of mind" perhaps best describes the traditional U.S. response to these problems. If the presence of foreign-born offenders within the United States poses a threat, then removing them from our streets is the obvious “solution”— or at least the prevailing political rhetoric frames the issue this way. But there are
several reasons why U.S. policy makers should be concerned about foreign—born offenders even after they are deported from the United States.
As the spread of U.S. gangs to El Salvador demonstrates, the deportation of criminal offenders helps to create and reinforce international criminal syndicates. Many drug traffickers also continue their trade once they are deported, and the effectiveness is only enhanced by their ties to the U.S. In addition, an influx of deportees with criminal records exacerbates an already volatile situation along the U.S.-Mexico border, where criminals routinely prey on a vulnerable population. Cross-border criminal networks are common, and an increase in crime plagues residents of Mexico and the United States.
Recent journalism that documents many of the consequences of U.S. deportation practices lacking a “geopolitical perspective” includes:
Norberto Santana, Jr, “Criminal deportations fuel border crime wave,” Orange County Register, Dec. 18, 2007 at: http://www.ocregister.com/article/tijuana-border-deportees-1942538-police-criminal
Tijuana's Minister of Public Security Luis Javier Algorry said crime in Tijuana keeps rising and getting more violent. He said many of the petty criminals tell the local beat cops they were deported from U.S. jails.
"You've left them too close to the temptation," Algorry said. "If you leave them in Tijuana, they're only going to seek quick money to get back across."
"They're mostly good, honest people who were going to seek the American dream," Tijuana’s Mayor Honald said.
But once they're dropped off in a strange city with no money or place to stay, many turn to crime.
"It's turning good people into bad ones," Algorry said.Robert Lopez, Rich Connell, and Chris Kraul, “Gang uses deportation to its advantage to flourish in the United States,” Los Angeles Times, Oct. 30, 2005 at: http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-gang30oct30,1,4477244,full.story
A deportation policy aimed in part at breaking up a Los Angeles street gang has backfired and helped spread it across Central America and back into other parts of the United States. Newly organized cells in El Salvador have returned to establish strongholds in metropolitan Washington, D.C., and other U.S. cities. Prisons in El Salvador have become nerve centers, authorities say, where deported leaders from Los Angeles communicate with gang cliques across the United States.
Matthew Quirk, “How to Grow a Gang,” Atlantic, May 2008, at: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/toc/2008/05/
The United States has been down this road before; the mid-1990s saw a similar wave of criminal deportations. That one helped turn a small gang from Los Angeles, Mara Salvatrucha (better known as MS-13), into an international menace and what Customs and Border Protection now calls America’s “most dangerous gang.” It’s not clear that this one will turn out much better.