As the media and politicians spin the killing of Kathryn Steinle into a story about a broken U.S. immigration system and violent immigrants, a new study counters that narrative.
Among the findings in the American Immigration Council’s study released Tuesday were that natives are far more likely to commit violent crimes and be incarcerated than immigrants.
“One of the principle findings is that immigrants are less likely than natives to commit serious crimes or be behind bars,” said Walter Ewing, a senior researcher with the council and co-author of the study.
In recent days, everyone from high-ranking Democratic politicians to the San Francisco police union have attacked The City’s sanctuary law and its application as partly at fault for the shooting death of Steinle. Undocumented Mexican citizen Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez has been charged with first-degree murder in connection with the July 1 homicide on Pier 14 along the waterfront.
“Bottom line is a young innocent woman has been murdered in cold blood, in front of her father, by a 5 time deported illegal alien drug dealer. He is an ILLEGAL ALIEN not an undocumented immigrant and if he was where he belonged (Mexico) this innocent victim would still be alive,” wrote Martin Halloran, the head of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, in a statement.
Halloran’s remarks were just one example of a certain characterization of the shooting and San Francisco’s sanctuary law, which limits cooperation with federal immigration officials in a city whose population is 35 percent foreign-born.
But many if not all of the critiques are off-base when it comes to how likely immigrants are to commit crimes, noted the study and its authors.
“Anti-immigrant activists and politicians are fond of relying upon anecdotes to support their oft-repeated claim that immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, are dangerous criminals,” began the introduction to the study, “The Criminalization of Immigration in the Unites States.”
The introduction went on to say: “This mythical claim is usually based on rhetorical sleight of hand in which individual stories of heinous crimes committed by immigrants are presented as ‘proof’ that we must restrict immigration or ‘get tough’ on the undocumented in order to save the lives of U.S. citizens. While these kinds of arguments are emotionally powerful, they are intellectually dishonest.”
The study found that immigrants are less likely to be in jail than natives, crime tends to drop during periods of high immigration, and most federally incarcerated immigrant inmates are there for immigration violations and not other crimes.
The study found that in 2000, native-born men from age 18 to 39 were five times more likely to be in jail than immigrants. Citing a 2008 report by the San Francisco-based Public Policy Institute, foreign-born people make up 17 percent of the prison population but roughly 35 percent of California’s total adult population.
Not only does the study point out that native born residents are more prone to criminal activity, but it also noted that after immigration each successive generation becomes more likely to commit crimes.
Researcher Ewing said it appears immigrants are highly motivated not to commit crimes.
“This is a group motivated to not get in trouble with the law and blow it all,” he said.
Still, policy has increasingly pegged immigrants as criminals, Ewing added. This is true, he said, from federal laws that only impact immigrants by sending them to prison for illegally entering the country, to punitive outcomes for immigrants who commit minor crimes.
“Stereotypes seem to win the day with the formulation of immigration policy,” said Ewing. “What doesn’t make any sense is to say that an immigrant criminal is a criminal because he is an immigrant. We don’t say the same thing about the native-born.”
Laura Polstein, a lawyer with Centro Legal de La Raza in San Francisco, said that much of the reaction to this tragedy is rooted in xenophobia and racism that stereotype whole communities for the action of one man. Still, she hopes local politicians wait for all of the facts to come forth before they try to alter The City’s stance on ICE holds.
Lopez-Sanchez pleaded not guilty to murder and gun enhancements Tuesday. On Wednesday, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management confirmed that the gun used in the killing belonged to one of its rangers and was stolen from the employee’s car in San Francisco.
Lopez-Sanchez had been convicted five times for illegally re-entering the country and served a total of 15 years in federal prison for those convictions.
He was released March 26 from his last stint in federal custody, but a 20-year-old warrant on a minor marijuana charge brought him to San Francisco. Those charges were dropped, and he was eventually released after the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department made sure he had no outstanding warrants.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials had asked The City to hold Lopez-Sanchez so they could proceed with deportation, but the Sheriff’s Department did not cooperate due to San Francisco’s sanctuary ordinance.
ICE had likewise asked federal prison authorities to hold Lopez-Sanchez twice while he was in their custody: in July 2011 and in October 2013.
In 2014, ICE made 161,322 such requests to law enforcement agencies nationwide. From 2014 to mid-June of this year, 17,193 such ICE requests were not honored, with 10,516 of those refusals from California.