During the current election, there has been much talk about crime committed by illegal immigrants. Donald Trump and many other Republicans would have people believe that the 11 million or so undocumented people living within our borders are a major, perhaps even primary, source of violent crime. "They're not sending us their best," Mr. Trump famously said about people coming from Mexico last year. "They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists."
This is, of course, patently untrue, a pants-on-fire prevarication as fact-checkers like to say. While yes, there are certainly immigrants, illegal or otherwise, who commit serious crimes (as there are in any group of human beings), studies have shown that immigrants, no matter their legal status, are less likely to break the law than people who are born and raised in the U.S. Indeed, the rise in the number of illegal immigrants after 1990 coincides with a declining rate of violent crime in this country, a point FBI statistics easily confirm.
Given this reality, it's disappointing to hear that the Harford County sheriff's office has signed up for the controversial U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) program that authorizes deputies to check the immigration status of people it detains. On the surface, this seems quite reasonable. Why not help enforce federal immigration laws? But it's actually quite destructive and counter-productive when local police are perceived as ICE enforcers.
Why? Because when local police are immigration enforcers, people in the immigrant community immediately become wary of having any contact with them. Victims, witnesses, innocent bystanders, nobody wants a chance encounter with law enforcement to mean they'll be locked up and possibly deported. As a result, more serious crimes may go unreported or unsolved — and that should be a lot more troubling to Harford County residents than whether someone is living in Bel Air on an expired tourist or student visa.
Unfortunately, cooperating with ICE has become a source of revenue for local police agencies. Federal reimbursement to cover detainment costs can be a powerful incentive. That's not just in Frederick and Harford counties, the only two Maryland subdivisions that have taken on 287(g) authority, but also in Anne Arundel where authorities are contemplating allowing ICE to house detainees at the county jail in return for a potentially lucrative compensation. That, again, sends a signal that local law enforcement is hostile toward immigrants, undocumented or otherwise.
Is federal immigration policy broken? Absolutely. But the answer is not a crackdown on the local level. It's for Congress to finally adopt a sensible version of immigration reform that offers hardworking, otherwise law-abiding people a path to legal status. That's what Ronald Reagan signed into law exactly 30 years ago as of this coming Sunday — an opportunity for people who had entered the country illegally to stay here legally by paying a fine and back taxes and providing proof they were not guilty of crimes.
Unfortunately, it's far too easy for irresponsible candidates for public office to demagogue on this issue, tapping public distrust and racial fears and blaming immigrants not only for crime but for a host of other problems. Anger toward and marginalizing of immigrants has a long and not-so-proud history in this country despite the fact that, according to the last U.S. Census, about 13 percent of us are foreign-born. Naturalized citizens are even prohibited from becoming president — an odd relic of the U.S. Constitution that gave rise to the birther movement against Barack Obama in which Mr. Trump played a high-profile role.
Still, no matter where one stands on the issue of immigration policy, it's pretty clear that the role of keeping communities safe is far more important than checking paperwork. Better for local police and sheriff's departments to stick to investigating and solving crimes than becoming pawns in a bitter national policy dispute. That doesn't involve entering into deals with ICE, it means assuring local immigrants that officers are not federal agents sweeping through schools or churches or grocery stores or restaurant kitchens rounding up people who may be in the country illegally. Undermining immigrant trust in police officers simply doesn't make anyone safer.