The Politics of Fear; Part One: The National Level

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Protest in California against sanctuary cities. Photo Steve Rhodes, Wikimedia Commons

Throughout history, demagogues have exploited fear to gain power and to hold power.

They create or exaggerate a threat and then present themselves as saviors.  Donald Trump succeeded with this approach in his presidential campaign.  The alleged threat immigrants posed to national security drew roars of approval from crowds across the country early in Trump’s campaign.  Muslims were labeled “terrorists,” and Mexicans were labeled “drug dealers, criminals, and rapists.”  To protect fearful Americans, Trump vowed to stop Muslims at all ports of entry, build a border wall against Mexicans, and deport all “illegals.”

Once in office, Trump issued an executive order, “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States.”  It states,

“Many aliens who illegally enter the United States… present a significant threat to national security and public safety…

Sanctuary jurisdictions across the United States willfully violate Federal law in an attempt to shield aliens from removal from the United States.  These jurisdictions have caused immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our Republic.

Tens of thousands of removable aliens have been released into communities across the country, solely because their home countries refuse to accept their repatriation.  Many of these aliens are criminals who have served time in our Federal, State, and local jails.”

Although the alleged purpose of Trump’s executive order is to keep us safe from criminal aliens, the order says, “we cannot faithfully execute the immigration laws of the United States if we exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement.“ The order then lists practically all those who have crossed the border illegally as “removable aliens.”

In other words, the order opens the door to the deportation of all undocumented immigrants.  By emphasizing criminal aliens, Trump is using scare tactics to legitimize the deportation of larger numbers of undocumented immigrants.  This is markedly different from President Obama’s Priorities Enforcement Program, which prioritized the deportation of felons, gang members, and potential terrorists, making the country safer.

Following Trump’s lead, Attorney General Sessions attacked sanctuary cities for facilitating immigrant crime.  In April, he sent a letter to leading sanctuary cities requiring them to declare their compliance with federal law.

Sessions arriving at Trump's inauguration on January 20, 2017. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Sessions arriving at Trump’s inauguration on January 20, 2017. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Department of Justice noted that many of those cities were “crumbling under the weight of illegal immigration and violent crime.” Sessions asserted that “the president has rightly said disregard for law must end….Today, I am urging states and local jurisdictions to comply with these laws.” The frequent use of the terms “comply” and “compliance” in this context by anti-immigrant advocates is deliberately misleading.  What’s at stake is not compliance, which is legally required, but cooperation, which is not.

Section 8 of U.S. Code 1373 says that a “Federal, State, or local government entity or official may not prohibit, or in any way restrict, any government entity or official from sending to, or receiving from, the Immigration and Naturalization Service information regarding the citizenship or immigration status, lawful or unlawful, of any individual.”

For example, a state government may not prohibit a local government from sharing immigration information with immigration authorities, but the local government is not required to do so.  In the same way, local governments may not prohibit their police departments from sending or receiving such information, but the police are not obliged to do so.  Nor are they required to collect or retain such information. The collection, retention, and sharing of information about immigration status is voluntary for states and localities, and according to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, “sanctuary policies are entirely consistent with federal laws.”

Scare Tactics versus Facts

Trump’s scare tactics solidify support among his base but fly in the face of established facts. Research proves that immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans.  A February 2017 article in Scientific American reported, “We analyzed census data spanning four decades from 1970 to 2010 for 200 randomly selected metropolitan areas.  The most striking finding from our research is that for murder, robbery, burglary, and larceny, as immigration increased, crime decreased, on average, in American metropolitan areas.”

Another article in the same issue of Scientific American examined findings from more than 50 studies dealing with immigrant crime published between 1994 and 2014.  The authors found that “cities and neighborhoods with greater concentrations of immigrants have lower rates of crime and violence, all else being equal.”

The association of immigrants with lower crime rates is true whether immigrants are documented or undocumented.  In March 2017, the Cato Institute reported: “Our headline finding is that both illegal immigrants and legal immigrants have incarceration rates far below those of native-born Americans—at 0.85 percent, 0.47 percent, and 1.53 percent, respectively.”

Researchers have posited that immigrants tend to move into deteriorating, low-rent neighborhoods often plagued by crime.  By getting jobs, raising families, and fostering communities, immigrants tend to stabilize neighborhoods and reduce crime rates.

The Trump administration’s counter to scientific findings on immigrant crime is to publicize horror stories.  Trump’s executive order requires the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to publicize crimes committed by aliens, especially in sanctuary cities “to better inform the public regarding the public safety threats associated with sanctuary jurisdictions, the Secretary shall…on a weekly basis, make public a comprehensive list of criminal actions committed by aliens and any jurisdiction that ignored…any detainers with respect to such aliens. “

Pursuant to the executive order, on April 26, DHS Secretary John Kelly announced the launch of a new Office for Victims of Illegal Immigrant Crime (called VOICE) to “assist victims of crimes committed by criminal aliens.”  The office has its own victim hotline: 1-855-48-VOICE.   According to The Atlantic, disrespectful pranksters have been calling in to report that they’ve been victimized by aliens from outer space.

Trump’s message has resonated with marginalized white voters who fear that immigrants are stealing their jobs, threatening their safety, and co-opting American culture.  They may not get their jobs back, but they can feel better now that the Trump administration is removing the imaginary threats to their safety.

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Dave Boesel is a political scientist and activist since the days of the civil rights campaign and the anti-Vietnam War movement.