A Closer Look at Illegal Immigration Assumptions: How the Law Produces “Criminals” Through Naming by Katie Hoeppner
I recently sat down for dinner with a crowd of friends and a married couple who I had just met. The two went from discussing their latest trip to Cancun, Mexico with enthusiasm to declaring their support for Donald Trump within a matter of moments. They didn’t seem to notice the irony in traveling to Mexico to enjoy its lush beaches, while supporting a man who has vowed to build a wall that would keep millions of Mexicans out of the United States. It begged the question, how many Americans take for granted their right to travel to Mexico for pleasure, while denying the right of Mexicans to travel to the United States to work and enhance their life possibilities? It is sad to think that some people believe that leisurely travel is their right, while the survival of their neighbors to the south is only a privilege.
The couple in question might insist that they traveled legally and for a short period of time, in contrast to the many Mexicans who come to the United States illegally and for long periods of time. Indeed, people often tell me they welcome those who come here following the proper legal channels, and reject only those who come here illegally. However, these comments miss the mark. As Friedmann Marquardt et al. (2011:46) point out, the simple answer to the common question “why don’t they just wait in line?” is that for most people, “there simply is no line available.”¹ They would come here legally if they could, but they do not meet the criteria for lawful entry. The United States places restrictions on immigration that generally allow only those who are reuniting with family, sponsored by an eligible employer, or who have attained special humanitarian status, such as refugee or asylee, to enter. Employee sponsored work visas are reserved for skilled professionals who have attained a high level of education or who possess extraordinary abilities, “such as computer scientists or professional baseball players” and those applying for family visas can find themselves waiting for a decade or more (Friedmann Marquardt et al. 2011:46). The Diversity Visa program is another path applicants can pursue if they don’t meet the criteria for the above categories; however, it only awards 55,000 green cards per year and prohibits people from countries with high immigration rates, such as Mexico, from applying. Quite simply, the law is not setup to allow most of those who are here illegally to be here legally.
While it is often assumed that the act of breaking the law automatically makes someone violent and dangerous or even deserving of punishment, such sentiments are misleading. Contrary to Donald Trump’s remarks that the majority of Mexican immigrants are rapists and criminals, research shows that immigrants more broadly are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans (American Immigration Council 2015, Southern Poverty Law Center 2010). Moreover, undocumented Mexicans are frequently the victims of brutal hate crimes, many of which go unreported each year due to the victims’ fear of deportation. Often times, Americans who commit such crimes are not caught, but when they are caught, they may receive reduced penalties because they, unlike their victims, are not seen as “criminals.”
In her book, Social Death: Racialized Rightlessness and the Criminalization of the Unprotected, Lisa Marie Cacho (2012) offers a particularly salient example of this type of scenario. In July 2000, while on a mission to “hunt” down undocumented Mexicans in San Diego, a group of high school teenagers spotted and shot 64-year-old Andres Roman Díaz with BB guns as he was walking home from work. They then followed Díaz back to his home and proceeded to beat him and his four co-workers with a pitchfork, rocks and pipes. They beat one man so badly that they worried they had killed him, and out fear of being caught, hid his body in the bushes (Cacho 2012: 35-36). Although the boys assumed that their victims were illegal migrant workers, all five men were actually living and working legally in the United States. In the end, none of the teenage assailants were sent to state prison. Five out of the seven were sent to a California Youth Authority Facility and out of those five, four were sentenced for less than one year (Cacho 2012: 35-37).
Cacho (2012:37) recounts this story to pose the following question: “What makes it difficult for the criminal justice system to recognize young white men as criminals and, for that matter, to recognize racially motivated anti-immigrant violence as a crime deserving of criminal punishment?” Cacho (2012:43) also explores the flip side of this question – what makes undocumented Mexicans automatically seem criminal? – and asserts that to be an “illegal alien” is a “de facto status crime.” By this she means that one’s status becomes an offense or a crime in and of itself.
Being undocumented is illegal, but residing here illegally does not mean that immigrants are violent. However, when the law confers the status “criminal” upon immigrants simply for being undocumented, it infers that they are violent. It also leaves them vulnerable to suffering, violence, and death. Not only must they take dangerous and low-paying jobs, they may be arrested and detained for undetermined periods of time or, as shown above, beaten and tortured by intolerant Americans simply by occupying the status of “illegal” immigrant. Legality and morality are not synonymous. While the expectation is that the law offers protections from harm or promotes the common good, in truth the law often produces insecurity and violence for large portions of the population. One only has to look to slavery, segregation, and the eugenics movement for stark examples of legally institutionalized, appalling, and brutal behavior.
Donald Trump’s hateful remarks have the capacity to augment hate crimes across the country, already carried out in large numbers on the basis of race, religion, and sexuality. Last August, when two White brothers from Boston beat and urinated on a homeless Mexican man, Trump first denied hearing about the story, and then added, “I will say that people who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again. They are passionate. I will say that, and everybody here has reported it” (Moyer 2015). One of the brothers, Scott Leader, directly mentioned Trump’s name, telling police “Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported” (Moyer 2015). The state has a monopoly on violence, and the law dictates that which is legitimate violence and that which is illegitimate violence. If our next president is a man that believes senseless torture is passion, I fear that more violence than we can ever imagine will be deemed legitimate.
1. Also See: “Why Don’t They Just Get in Line?” American Immigration Council
(August 12, 2016)
American Immigration Council. 2016. “The Criminalization of Immigration in the United States.” Last modified August 12, 2016.
Cacho, Lisa M. 2015. Social Death: Racialized Rightlessness and the Criminalization of the Unprotected. New York: New York University Press.
Marquardt Freedmann, Marie, Steigenga, Timothy J., Williams, Philip J., and Vásquez, Manuel A. 2011. New York: The New Press.
Moyer, Justin Mw. 2015. “Trump says fans are ‘very passionate’ after hearing one of them allegedly assaulted Hispanic man” The Washington Post, August 21.
Southern Poverty Law Center. 2010. “Getting Immigration Facts Straight” Southern Poverty Law Center. Heidi Beirich. Last Modified July 29, 2010.