Immigration as a Criminal Issue

The idea that immigrants are criminals is a recurring theme of the anti-immigrant Right. The press is often happy to present sensationalist pieces that play on this stereotype. While "illegal" immigrants' criminality seems self-evident to these groups, legal permanent resident and non- White citizens also are suspect because of their potential allegiances to different countries, values or political ideologies.

Immigrants have been targeted and brutalized by the "war on drugs," which has helped justify the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border. The portrayal of immigrants as both criminals and a threat to national security resulted in the passage of two laws in 1996: the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA). Immediately after the Oklahoma City bombing, terrorism "experts" pointed the finger at Islamic "extremists." Even after the bombing proved to be the work of a homegrown terrorist, Clinton signed the Anti-Terrorism law, which has had dramatic repercussions for Arab Americans and other immigrants. With the recent September 11 attacks, Congress and the administration put through severe "security" measures that further infringed on the civil liberties of all noncitizens.

Immigrants and Crime

What the Anti-Immigrant Right Says

Anti-immigrant organizations argue that immigrants are much more likely to be involved in criminal activity. They say:

  • Some immigrants are dangerous career criminals. For example: Mexican and Colombian drug dealers, Chinese "snakeheads" smuggling in human cargo on the Golden Venture freighter, sex traffickers coercing undocumented women into prostitution, ethnic gang members, middle-class immigrants stealing trade secrets, and pregnant women sneaking across the border to have children and "leech" off public benefits.
  • September 11 attacks are an example of the extremes that some noncitizens are willing to go to if they are not monitored closely.
  • Undocumented workers and visa violators are examples of unprincipled immigrants. Since they would break laws to enter the country, they are more likely to continue criminal activity once here.
  • INS detention centers are full of such law-breakers. Immigrants are one of the fastest growing prison populations.
  • The INS needs to more effectively locate and deport both "illegal" immigrants and "criminal aliens," regardless of their legal status.
  • The most effective solution is to dramatically limit legal immigration and increase INS and Border Patrol funding.

Example: James S. Robb. (1995). "Infamous Immigrants: Here's Proof All Newcomers Aren't Albert Einsteins." The Social Contract, Fall, p. 5-15. (Examples include Giuseppe Esposito, Sirhan Sirhan, the "Marielitos Boatlift," and Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman.)


The Right presents a distorted picture of the situation by using anecdotal evidence and the power of isolated horrific events, such as the September 11 attacks, to argue its case. Criminal activity and violence are realities of our society, but immigrants are no more prone to criminal activity than citizens. In fact, a study by researchers from Boston College and Harvard University found that among men aged 18 to 40, native-born men were more likely to be incarcerated than immigrants.1 In another study, the researcher found that recent immigrants had no significant effect on crime rates and youth born abroad were less likely than native-born youth to be criminally active.2 In fact, immigrants have disproportionately been the victims of racial profiling, police brutality and crimes, including xenophobic or racist hate crimes.

The recent increase in immigrant incarceration rates is a result of the draconian 1996 laws. These laws increased the number of crimes for which immigrants could be detained and deported, even after they had served regular prison sentences. They also mandated that asylum seekers be placed in detention centers until they have established a credible fear of persecution, a process that can take years. By 2001, these laws led to the incarceration of 20,000 immigrants in INS detention, of whom 3000 were being held indefinitely.

Detention centers are known for their inhumane conditions including overcrowding, poor medical care, and physical and mental abuse.3 Because detention is considered an administrative process, detainees have few of the legal rights of other prisoners - no family visitation rights, no right to legal counsel, and INS standards that were created to rectify the inhumane conditions are not legally binding. Immigrants can be tried and deported based on secret evidence they never see.

The 1996 laws that brought about this situation were a direct result of the Right's portrayal of immigrants as dangerous criminals. Rather than increasing the safety of our communities, these laws have dramatically infringed on the civil liberties of all immigrants. In 2001 the Supreme Court curtailed some of the most retrograde aspects of the 1996 laws, including ending most indefinite detentions. However, the policy of deporting longtime lawful permanent residents for a range of crimes, including minor nonviolent offenses, remains. In addition, after the September 11 attacks, the USA PATRIOT Act again created the legal means to detain noncitizens indefinitely and gave the Attorney General extensive powers to infringe on the civil liberties of those suspected of being involved in terrorism without meaningful judicial review. (See "Repercussions of September 11, 2001," p. 86.)

"Illegal Aliens and the U.S.-Mexico Border

What the Anti-Immigrant Right Says

The Right describes undocumented immigrants as "illegal," portraying their mere existence as a crime, and consistently refers to all immigrants with the dehumanizing term "alien." They say:

  • The United States is threatened by an "immigrant invasion" especially across the U.S.-Mexico border, which is a "border battleground."
  • There is a Mexican plot to reconquer "Aztlan," the portion of southwestern United States taken from Mexico in the Mexican-American War of 1846.
  • A smuggling industry has formed that is profiting from the exploitation of these "illegals."
  • Since the INS has failed to stop this "immigrant invasion," local citizens' groups or police departments must take on the responsibility to protect the nation.

Example: See generally website of Voices of Citizens Together,, and specifically their video "Immigration Threatening the Bonds of the Union: Part III: Conquest of Aztlan."


When right-wing groups call undocumented immigrants "illegal," they suggest that migration is merely a personal choice of whether to break the law. They blame the migrant and the smugglers, ignoring the root causes of undocumented migration. The United States has helped create the conditions that lead people to migrate and benefits from the existence of undocumented immigrants. Poor migrants and those from certain countries, such as Mexico, have very little opportunity to immigrate to the United States legally.

Right-wing groups define the migrant by the violation of a law, though the "crime" has no victim. A person who has violated a traffic law is not called an "illegal driver." In fact, crossing the border wasn't considered a crime until the INS moved into the Justice Department in 1940.

The Right's use of military metaphors furthers a sense of urgency, implying the country is under attack by Mexican border crossers. This type of rhetoric has helped to justify the use of military personnel and tactics on a civilian population, at times with deadly consequences. It also creates the cultural climate where the violation of immigrants' human and civil rights is justified in pursuit of "national security."

Such thinking has manifested itself in the policies of the U.S. government. In the last ten years the government has increased the funding and more than doubled the personnel of the Border Patrol (the law enforcement arm of the INS). In addition it has initiated programs designed to stem border crossings. In fact, these programs have merely forced migrants to move through remote, dangerous regions. As a result, many migrants have died from exposure and dehydration. In addition, the Border Patrol has received military training and technology. Military troops at times have been deployed on the border for drug and immigration enforcement purposes. Military tactics are focussed on annihilating a threat rather than protecting civil rights or ensuring due process. They are extremely dangerous and inappropriate when dealing with a civilian population. In the May 1997, for example, a U.S. Marine shot and killed a teenager (a U.S. citizen) who was herding goats in Redford, Texas. Amnesty International has documented other human rights violations by the Border Patrol against citizens, immigrants and indigenous peoples whose tribal lands span the border. These include denial of food, water and medical care during detention, wrongful deportations, physical and sexual abuse, and fatal shootings.4

Most scholars agree that these efforts have failed to stop undocumented immigration. Employers, largely unscrutinized by INS, have continued to benefit from the labor of this workforce. INS raids (or the threat of raids) have been used by employers to undermine workers' efforts to gain fair wages and safe working conditions. These raids have also led to the violation of workers' civil rights. When INS has worked with local police, the community's trust in law enforcement has been undermined.

Despite the brutality of the government's policies and actions, many anti-immigrant groups say that the INS is not doing enough. Some ranchers whose lands are crossed by undocumented immigrants have created armed vigilante groups that seek to ensnare border crossers to be delivered to the Border Patrol. There have been increased hate crimes against immigrants and people of color along the U.S.-Mexico border and in communities with growing immigrant populations.


What the Anti-Immigrant Right Says

Anti-immigrant groups oppose any programs that provide "amnesty" or a means of changing the status of undocumented immigrants. They say:

  • These programs tell immigrants that if they simply sneak into the United States and wait long enough they will gain legal status.
  • The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) that provided legal status to 2.7 million undocumented immigrants actually increased unauthorized immigration. As a result, fifteen years later there are another 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Examples: Mark Krikorian (of the Center for Immigration Studies). (2000). "Amnesties Beget More Illegal Immigration: Will somebody tell Congress?" National Review Online, October 16.; Federation for American Immigration Reform. (1997). "Why Amnesty for Illegal Aliens Was - and Remains - a Bad Idea." May.


Proposed legalization programs come out of an understanding of the real contributions and situations of undocumented immigrants. They also provide a fair, orderly way to deal with the existence of undocumented populations, which are a result of global policies facilitated by the United States. The only way to protect the rights of undocumented immigrants in the workplace, in housing, and in all realms of life is to give them legal status. Fear keeps undocumented immigrants from reporting dangerous working or housing conditions, domestic violence, and environmental violations, among other community concerns. Undocumented immigrants pay taxes and contribute culturally and economically to the society at large. Some have lived in the United States for ten years or more, raising children (some of them citizens) here. Legalization is a way to provide them the means to protect their human and civil rights and to recognize the varied and important contributions of these populations.

When the Right blames legalization programs for the increase in undocumented immigration, they ignore the root causes of this situation, including the role of particular U.S. policies. For example, most Mexicans do not have the option of migrating legally given the current laws. Yet the United States supported NAFTA knowing that it would lead to harsher economic conditions in Mexico and the need for many Mexicans to seek employment elsewhere. Also U.S. refugee policies tend to not apply to people fleeing oppressive regimes the United States has supported, leading to increased undocumented immigration from those countries. Rather than seeking a just solution, the Right prefers to paint undocumented immigrants as inherently criminal and individually to blame for their situations.

End Notes

1. Kristin Butcher and Anne Morrison Piehl, "Recent Immigrants: Unexpected Implications for Crime and Incarceration," Industrial and Labor Relations Review, vol. 51, no. 4 (July 1998): 654-679.

2. Kristin Butcher and Anne Morrison Piehl, "Cross-City Evidence on the Relationship Between Immigration and Crime," Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Summer 1998.

3. See Human Rights Watch, "Locked Away: Immigration Detainees in Jails in the United States," vol. 10, no. 1 (September 1998). (January 10, 2002); Amnesty International, "Lost in the Labyrinth: Detention of Asylum Seekers in the USA," 1999. (January 10, 2002).

4. Amnesty International, "United States of America: Human Rights Concerns in the Border Region With Mexico," May 20, 1998. (October 22, 2001).

This article first appeared in Defending Immigrant Rights: An Activist Resource Kit, published by Political Research Associates, © 2002.

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