By Celeste Middleton
In his address to Congress last week, President Trump alleged that American victims of crimes committed by immigrants have been “ignored by our media,” their voices “silenced by special interests.” He called attention to Section 13 of his January executive order on immigration, which mandates the creation of a new office under the Department of Homeland Security. The Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement office, or VOICE, will be tasked with assisting victims of crimes committed by “criminal aliens,” issuing quarterly reports on the effects of these crimes, and publishing weekly lists of crimes committed by immigrants.
Funding & Mission
VOICE will receive any funds currently allocated towards advocacy for undocumented immigrants. The magnitude of DHS resources earmarked for this purpose is unclear. Beyond liaising with families to provide information about offenders’ immigration and custody status, it’s unclear whether this office will serve additional victim support functions. Based on the low incidence of this type of crime, it will be worth examining the size and budget of this office in relation to its incredibly narrow constituency.
A Solution in Search of a Problem
Like many a late-night Twitter rant, Trump’s assertion that crimes committed by immigrants are a serious threat to Americans lacks evidence. Increases in the estimated number of undocumented immigrants in the United States have not yielded proportional increases in crime rates. Rather, overall crime rates have declined over the last 20-25 years, while immigration (both legal and illegal) has risen. In fact, across 200 randomly-selected metropolitan areas, increases in immigration were correlated with reductions in murder, robbery, burglary, and larceny. This finding is not isolated; it’s part of a consistent body of research that refutes the supposed link between immigration and crime. For example, another analysis found a statistically significant negative correlation between concentrations of unauthorized immigrants and property crimes, meaning that average property crime rates decreased by 94 incidents per percentage-point increase in the undocumented-immigrant share of an urban population.
The geographic regions with a higher density of undocumented immigrants tend to be in relatively small metropolitan areas in the Southwestern and Western United States. As my colleague Jennifer Schulz pointed out last month, sanctuary cities (where immigrant communities may have a more trusting relationship with law enforcement) may actually be safer than cities that cooperate enthusiastically with federal immigration authorities. If you’re curious about immigration and crime data for your city, you can search by metro area here.
Despite all the pearl-clutching that Trump and like-minded Republicans have inspired, your pearls may actually be safer in a region with more undocumented immigrants.
Adding Insult to Travel Ban
The VOICE office isn’t just a poorly-veiled exercise in scapegoating; its acronym also co-opts a word used by more than one immigration advocacy group. America’s Voice is a national immigration advocacy group that supports immigration reforms to guarantee labor, civil, and political rights for new Americans and their families. Immigration Voice, a nonprofit based in Santa Clara, CA, seeks to “alleviate the problems faced by legal high-skilled future Americans.” Though these groups serve different goals and constituencies, Trump’s set of immigration policies target undocumented immigrants, immigrants from a certain subset of Muslim-majority countries, and H-1B visa applicants. Trump’s rhetoric, both as a candidate and in office, portrays Muslim and Latin American immigrants, regardless of residency status, as a terrifying jumble of gang members and terrorists. He doesn’t seem to care that our country’s approximately 3.1 million undocumented immigrants and their employers contribute about $12 billion in taxes each year, or that a great number of American industries and state economies depend upon the contributions of immigrant workers. Emboldened by Trump’s positions and rhetoric, immigration officials have carried out unusually cruel and legally questionable deportation actions. Inconsistent signals on the fate of ‘Dreamers’ protected by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) have sent waves of fear through undocumented students and their families.
White Nationalist Narratives
The creation of the VOICE office is a means of reassuring immigrant-fearing Trump supporters about the Administration’s hardline stance, while also publishing a quarterly source of “data” to reinforce beliefs about the threats posed by undocumented immigrants. Comparisons to Hitler are normally limited to sophomoric debate settings, but Trump’s mandate for the VOICE office is chillingly similar to pamphlets published by the Nazi regime in the 1930s and 40s. It’s also tragically unsurprising, given that the White House Chief Strategist reigned over a web publication that labeled certain posts with the tag “black crime,” including a piece that derided Black Lives Matter “malcontents” and “white liberals” in the mainstream media for focusing on police brutality rather than “black brutality and criminality.” This kind of scapegoating portrays immigrants and people of color as undeserving of the benefits of citizenship, legal residency, or community. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has granted the sheen of legitimacy to “alt-right” media outlets like Breitbart, which will no doubt be eager to weave VOICE’s statistics into their white nationalist narratives.
Recent work by Nour Kteily and Emile Bruneau examined Americans’ attitudes about Mexican immigrants and Muslims by asking participants to assess these groups’ evolutionary progress, as measured on the popular ape-to-man graphic. Participants, who were polled online during the presidential primaries, were also asked “how well they thought Mexican immigrants and Muslims were characterized by animalistic traits such as being ‘savage,’ ‘primitive,’ ‘lacking in self-control’ and ‘unsophisticated.’” Kteily and Bruneau’s approach, perhaps aided by an online format that shielded participants from self-censoring socially unacceptable responses, yielded consistently lower “humanity” ratings for Mexican immigrants and Muslims than for average Americans. They also found that rating these outgroups as “less human” – overtly dehumanizing them – was a strong predictor of a participant’s support for Trump’s then-proposed immigration policies. This relationship was much stronger than the correlation between dehumanization and support for other Republican candidates. Another finding from Kteily and Bruneau’s work compounds cause for concern about anti-immigrant rhetoric: groups that reported feeling dehumanized were less likely to report “suspicious activity” to the FBI, and more likely to support violent forms of protest over nonviolent actions. Aggression and dehumanization can easily devolve into reciprocal dehumanization and aggression.
No matter how many times Trump’s travel ban is revised, his administration’s anti-immigrant stance remains clear. Ill treatment of immigrants, documented or otherwise, and communities of color will only serve to reinforce hostility between Americans of different backgrounds. Trump’s policies and rhetoric are a recipe for balkanization and violence. His skill at dominating press coverage and exploiting xenophobia, Islamophobia, and racism (overt or disguised) helped him win the election, and it is critical that Americans engage in concrete efforts to oppose the instruments of these destructive forces.
Kteily and Bruneau’s research showed that “humanizing” Muslims, by priming participants with research about the Muslim world’s admiration of American freedoms, yielded less-dehumanizing ratings on the “Ascent of Man” evolutionary scale. Unfortunately, this intervention didn’t erase the overall trend of dehumanization, but it does fit with our understanding of the necessary ingredients for more harmonious intergroup relations. If Trump is serious about his claim that America is “a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms,” he will need to devote considerable effort to debunking the anti-immigrant myths he has propagated, and to reversing the cycles of dehumanization and hostility he has generated.
Celeste Middleton is a Master of Public Policy Candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy.