Crimmigration: The Wrongful Criminalization and Deportation Pipeline of Immigrants

by Sharada Jambulapati, ’12

Three years of investigation by the Department of Justice have finally proven what most people knew about America’s toughest sheriff.  In a 22-page report, Sheriff Joe Arpaio was found to have racially profiled Latinos, denied adequate care to inmates, and mismanaged law enforcement training.  In response to the evidence, Arpaio simply stated, “we are proud of the work we have done to fight illegal immigration.”

In immigration debates, politicians are quick to use the term illegal when justifying harsh, contradictory measures that compromise civil liberties.  The polarizing word generates a criminal stereotype and erroneously implies that an immigrant constantly breaks the law.  Continued use of isolating words has had an apparent effect on public opinion.  In a 2000 national survey, 73% of Americans believed that immigrants were linked to increased crime.

However, the societal perceptions of immigrants do not reflect the actual data regarding immigration and crime correlations.  Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson has written extensively on how the causal link between first-generation immigrants and crime has been grossly abused.  With respect to actual crimes committed, criminologists have routinely pointed to the fact that the incarceration rate of the native-born population is five times the rate of the foreign-born demographic. Although critics argue that crime is underreported among immigrant communities, sociologists Ramiro Martínez and Matthew Lee have found that crime still declined significantly in border cities, such as El Paso and San Diego, where immigration rose over 50 percent during the 1990s.

Despite the drop in crime rates, the United States has increasingly funneled resources and efforts to remove immigrants due to their alleged propensity for lawlessness.  Since 1998, the budget for immigration enforcement has increased by 600%, from approximately $3.6 billion to nearly $22 billion.  Additionally, immigration prosecutions have swelled the court system by becoming the most common federal criminal prosecution, far exceeding drug and weapons prosecutions.  This misinformed and suspicious attitude toward immigrants has played a major role in defining United States immigration policies.

With 400,000 removals in 2011, the Obama administration has been credited for a record total of 1.1 million deportations, which is higher than the removals during George W. Bush’s entire administration.  ICE intelligence director James Chaparro has been known to rouse his team of agents like a baseball coach gives pep talks.  In a 2010 memo, he urged his field agents to“step up to the plate on criminal aliens” in order to meet the government’s annual quota on deportations.  To create a more competitive environment, Chaparro instituted a ranking system for ICE agents based on their number of deportation cases per month—forty-six and above indicated excellent whereas thirty cases and below indicated unacceptable.  With such rigid quotas and deportation contests in place, questions arise over how the United States expels immigrants from the country.

The Berkeley Warren Institute recently published studies on two major 287(g) programs, Secure Communities (S-Comm) and the Criminal Alien Program (CAP).   Through CAP, ICE agents visit and interview prisoners to determine their deportability.  More recently, CAP has questionably been expanded to allow ICE agents to review cases by phone and video conference. Given the limited resources, ICE agents conduct a select number of interviews in prisons based on a sliding definition of reasonable suspicion.  For instance, studies of police departments in Florida have found that agents use “name, ethnicity, language, place of birth, or the local officer’s hunch of citizenship status” as a basis to refer individuals to ICE.  In a case study of Irving, TX, a startling 96% of CAP arrests were issued to Latinos.  Only two percent of CAP arrests were issued to individuals with a felony offense.

Despite describing itself as “merely a data-sharing program,” the Secure Communities Program has been criticized for creating a perception that local police serve as ICE agents.  The program’s name implies that local enforcement is targeting dangerous criminals and removing them through deportations.  However, in addition to detaining U.S. citizens and DREAMers, the program has not deported the hardened criminals, as the Obama Administration claims.  Ninety-three percent of individuals detained were Latinos, who account for only 77% of the entire undocumented population in the United States.  Ninety-three percent of those detained were also men, despite the fact that females contribute to 25% of arrests nationwide.  Forty-five percent of people were sentenced with being “Present Without Admission (PWA), a charge that does not indicate any criminal history.”   In fact, only eight percent of those detained for deportation were charged with an aggravated felony conviction.

The data and stories from these programs reveal that there is a clear target of a certain demographic to be placed in immigrant removal proceedings and the deportation pipeline.  Deportability has been used as a tool to control the sense of security and perceived identity of immigrant communities.  Despite Obama’s plan to prioritize and review deportation cases, the damage of the criminalization label and fears generated among immigrants have already made a profound effect.  Comprehensive immigration reform and review of 287(g) programs are necessary but unlikely due to increasing congressional gridlock and the privatization of detention centers.

Sharada is a senior majoring in International Relations and a founding member of the Stanford Immigrant Rights Project.  Growing up in rural Georgia, she has seen how the United States uses immigrant labor yet mishandles immigrant rights.  

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