One of the most consistent messages for many Republican politicians over the past few decades has been that undocumented immigrants commit more crimes than other people. Therefore, the logic goes, deporting them en masse helps reduce crime rates. But this long-standing argument for strict immigration policy is little more than a myth, per a new study published by researchers at the University of California at Davis.
The study focuses on a program called Secure Communities, which was founded in 2008 under President George W. Bush as a way to increase data-sharing between Immigration and Customs Enforcement and local police departments with the goal of identifying and deporting more people who were living in the U.S. illegally. President Barack Obama initially expanded the program before eliminating it in 2014; as one of his first acts in office, President Trump brought it back with a vengeance.
The study looked into more than a thousand localities, examining their levels of crime before and after they adopted the Secure Communities program, and found the same outcome in all: The places that deported the most undocumented people showed no corresponding drop in crime compared to those that deported the least. This trend held for both property crime and violent crime.
The researchers used deportation data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University and crime data from the F.B.I. Uniform Crime Reporting program. “We find that [Secure Communities]-driven increases in deportation rates did not reduce crime rates for violent offenses or property offenses,” wrote the study authors. “We do not find evidence that SC increased either police effectiveness in solving crimes or local police resources.”
Randy Capp, director of research for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute, told Mic that the study’s findings match up with the results of numerous prior examinations.
“It’s been a longstanding practice in three administrations now to focus on public safety as a justification for deporting large numbers of people,” Capp explained. He pointed out that part of the problem stems from the extremely wide net cast by the Secure Communities program, which has been used to deport people for offenses that have no effect on violent or property crime rates.
“A large majority of people who are deported through Secure Communities ... don't have convictions for serious crimes,” Capp said. Small-scale drug possession and drunk driving top the list of the most common causes of deportation under Secure Communities, while “deportations of people who actually have been convicted of much more serious crimes are a really small share of the total.” As a result, the program “doesn’t have that great an impact on overall crime.”
The immigrant crime myth is a key component of a much larger political project: demonizing Hispanic immigrants, according to Carlos Guevara, senior policy advisor at the immigrant civil rights advocacy group UnidosUS. Guevara argued that this widespread belief “is placing the futures of an entire generation of American kids at risk, by essentially putting their parents at risk,” and pointed to Trump’s description of immigrants as rapists and murderers as part of an ongoing conservative project to “blur the lines between criminality and immigration and hope that that gets seared into people's minds.”
Guevara described Secure Communities as two separate, interlinked components. The first is comprised by what the Department of Homeland Security calls Interoperable Data Sharing, which refers to the ability of law enforcement agencies to communicate across local, state, and federal levels.
On top of this database infrastructure sits the policy component of Secure Communities, which is where the real harm occurs. By putting very few guidelines in place as far as which offenses can trigger deportation, the program ends up deporting people who have nothing to do with real criminal behavior. The lack of specificity “brings more people into the purview of DHS enforcement than [there] should be,” Guevara said. By not prioritizing deportation of felons who commit violent crimes, “you create an environment where anything goes.”
Innocent people who are just trying to give their families are caught up in the DHS dragnet, which can violently uproot them from the lives they’ve built in the U.S. and destroy their children’s chance for a stable upbringing. That’s why the UC Davis study is so important: It dispels the myth of immigrant crime – once again — which has had devastating consequences for undocumented people.
As for their communities, well, the data proves that mass deportation leaves them no safer than before.