WALL STREET JOURNAL
March 8, 1994
IMMIGRANT-BASHING’S LATEST FALSEHOOD
JOHN J. MILLER
Criminal immigrants grabbed hold of national headlines last week and wouldn’t let go. On Friday, a federal jury convicted three Palestinians and an Egyptian in the World Trade Center bombing. On Wednesday, a Lebanese immigrant was charged with a drive-by shooting on the Brooklyn Bridge. On Monday, police in Washington captured a Nigerian-born journalist whose bomb threat on the 14th Street bridge over the Potomac River backed up rush-hour traffic for 10 miles in northern Virginia.
All of this seems to confirm what polls say most Americans already believe: Immigrants worsen the U.S. crime problem. Immigrants have been implicated in everything from the Long Island Rail Road massacre to a pair of murders outside CIA headquarters. Even the Bobbitt affair had an immigration twist — Lorena is from Ecuador.
These powerful images, however, add up to almost nothing. Immigrants are no more prone to criminal behavior than anybody else. Yet in the coming political season, which will feature elections in several states heavily affected by immigration, expect opportunists of all stripes to exploit popular misconceptions.
Just as the country suddenly wants a tough stance on crime, it also appears to have the immigration jitters. Several recent polls seem to show the public treating all immigrants as accomplices to the criminal actions of a few. According to a Newsweek survey, 60% of the public considers immigration a “bad thing” for the country today. A New York Times/CBS News study found that 61% of Americans think immigration levels should be reduced — up from 49% in 1986, when Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act. In California, home to about one-third of all foreign-born Americans, Gov. Pete Wilson watched his dismal approval ratings shoot upward shortly after announcing a spate of proposals targeting illegal immigrants.
In an apparent response to these concerns, the Clinton administration has asked for a 22% budget increase for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Although most of the $368 million in new funds would go toward beefing up the Border Patrol, reforming asylum procedures and cracking down on businesses that hire undocumented workers, a big chunk — $55 million — would focus on identifying and deporting criminal aliens.
That’s OK, but it does add to the notion that immigrants are more likely to be criminals than native-born Americans. By bundling dollars devoted to criminal aliens within a broader INS package, the administration, through no fault of its own, makes a criminal justice problem look like an immigration problem. Restrictionists try to blur distinctions further. The Federation for American Immigration Reform, which seeks to impose a moratorium on most admissions, has already sent out thousands of fund-raising letters explicitly linking immigrants to terrorism, assassination and smuggling.
Upon first glance, the U.S. does appear to have a criminal immigrant crisis on its hands. Aliens, after all, make up more than 25% of all prisoners in the federal penitentiary system. One problem: The feds aren’t arresting immigrants. They’re nabbing drug runners whose business occasionally takes them into the U.S. In fact, almost 80% of all aliens in federal prisons were convicted on drug charges. Many of them were “mules” — low-level operatives who smuggled drugs across the border. Others were high-profile deal makers, such as Manuel Noriega. All of them are international criminals, not immigrants.
There is little correlation between the immigrants in prison and those in the population at large. Mexicans, Colombians, Cubans, Dominicans and Jamaicans are the five largest foreign-born groups in the federal prison system, according to the Bureau of Prisons. By contrast, the five largest immigrant groups over the past 12 years have been Mexicans, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Chinese and Koreans.
Mexicans are far and away the largest immigrant group, and so it’s only natural that they’d show up on both lists. Colombians, however, don’t even rank among the top 15 immigrant groups. Most of these federal prisoners never intended to settle down, find jobs or raise families, as most immigrants do. They simply wanted to exploit our society’s openness in order to make a quick buck on the black market.
The simple-minded calculation of “immigrant equals criminal” simply doesn’t compute. Of the five states most heavily burdened by alien prisoners in 1992 — California, New York, Florida, Illinois and Texas — only New York had a greater share of noncitizens in its prisons (12.4%) than in the general population (almost 9%). In California, which housed a 10.4% alien-prisoner population, at least 15% of state residents are noncitizens.
Facts, of course, probably won’t get in the way of the immigrant-bashing bandwagon. Politicians in search of votes will bring the crime and immigration issues under one banner. The crusade might begin in trend-setting California, which will elect a governor and a senator in November. It could then spread to other states with large immigrant populations, like Florida and New York, which also have gubernatorial and Senate races this year. In the worst scenario, Congress could eventually take some punitive action against immigrants during its debates on health care, welfare and crime.
If the anti-immigrant forces want to score cheap political points, recent events certainly give them ample opportunity. But they would do better to listen to New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s message, delivered shortly after police arrested Rashad Baz in connection with the Brooklyn Bridge shooting: “There has been an illogical and destructive tendency to characterize a community by the worst people in that community. . . . This act of evil is not the act of a people, but it’s the act of a person or persons.” What a shame if we don’t heed these words and instead let a few miscreants inspire us to reject the good working people of many lands seeking to improve their lives in America.
Mr. Miller is associate director of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for the New American Community in Washington.