During his first week in office, President Donald Trump directed the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security to research and collect data on violent crimes committed by immigrants. He set up the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) office under the DHS to “serve the needs of crime victims and their families who have been affected by crimes committed by individuals with a nexus to immigration.” VOICE fashions itself as a “victim-centered approach” to crimes committed by immigrants.
In other words, Trump started his presidency with a set of biases and directed his staff to prove them. Every once in a while, he offers up individual incidents as evidence of a widespread occurrence, thereby continuing to stoke the prejudices of his supporters.
Each case of victimization is tragic and deeply troubling. The City was witness to Kate Steinle’s murder on Embarcadero Pier 14 in 2015 by undocumented immigrant Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez, who is now going by his real moniker Jose Inez Garcia Zarate. Garcia Zarate was deported from the United States a total of five times and managed to sneak back in again and again. His case is being tried in San Francisco Superior Court.
There is no doubt that we need policies that keep us safe from these individual occurrences of violence; our justice system needs checks and balances to prevent from making grievous errors of judgment. And as a society, we should have the tools to recognize and take charge of people who display morally attenuated behavior.
Federal policies, though, must focus on larger and more widespread scenarios. Study after study shows that first-generation immigrants commit crime less often than native citizens. According to The Sentencing Project, “Policies that further restrict immigration are therefore not effective crime-control strategies.”
The Pew Research Center posits that it’s the second-generation immigrants who commit more crimes than the foreign-born visa holder. The reason given for this? Assimilation!
“Second generation immigrants appear to be catching-up to and resemble the typical native-born (white) population, at least in regard to their offending profile,” wrote Bianca E. Bersani, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts Boston, in her analysis of the data trend.
With Sunday’s horrific incident of carnage in Las Vegas — headlined once again as “the worst mass shooting” — it’s increasingly clear that the same attention given to “criminal immigrants” needs to be applied to those who engage in mass-random-rage episodes in order to prevent the next one from happening. These mass shootings wreak havoc with our freedoms: the freedom to congregate, the freedom to enjoy arts and culture, the freedom from the fear of abnormal things happening while leading normal lives: going to school, going to work, going to church, going to a club, going to a concert.
The Guardian put out a shocking visual of 1,516 mass shootings in 1,735 days with a death toll of 1,719. An overwhelming majority of these mass shootings were carried out by American citizens. Only one mass shooter was a Muslim immigrant. Nine of these massacres occurred in San Francisco with 10 fatalities.
In June, Jimmy Lam, an 18-year veteran of UPS, opened fire on his colleagues at a Potrero Hill UPS warehouse. Four people died, including the alleged gunman. Lam, too, was an American citizen.
“Our nation needs stricter, commonsense gun laws. We cannot continue to play politics with American lives,” said San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, in response to the Vegas shooting.
It’s true — our gun laws are too lax and provide mass murderers easy access to weapons. At least 23 firearms were found in the Las Vegas gunman’s possession. Members of the National Rifle Association frequently point out that it’s not the gun that’s the problem, but the people holding the gun. But if those same people were armed with sticks, stones or knives instead of assault weapons, would there be this much damage?
The other problem I see is the lack of sustained attention given to mass murders by policymakers on the Hill. After each such shooting, there is a flurry of media reports, impassioned op-eds and statements from politicians — and then nothing till the next incident. The murder of people in public places is occurring with unrelenting regularity, and Congress is still paralyzed with indecision.
What we need is an office like VOICE, dedicated to doing research on mass murders. Let’s call this office VOMIT: Victims of Mass-shooting Incidents Takeaway. Just like VOICE, it should deliver quarterly reports; keep track of folks who are quietly stockpiling firearms; tally social data; conduct public, private and community discussions; ban assault weapons; and set up a registry for weapons collectors.
History and example have already shown us what our strategy should be. Forget Australia, where no massacres have occurred since gun-control laws were successfully implemented in 1996. After the 101 California St. shooting in San Francisco in 1993, California enacted strong and restrictive gun laws in the state and the Federal Assault Weapons Ban went into effect in 1994, but expired in 2004. Between 1982 to 1993, there were five California mass shootings. However, between 1993 to 2004, there was only one incident.
President Trump uses strong words and stronger actions to go after immigrants who rarely commit crimes, but has no follow-up plan to deter mass murderers bent on assaulting the safety and stability of our country.
Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.