If Americans needed any reminder of the hatred and racism that lies about a hair's breadth beneath the subject of immigration in this country, they witnessed it in full flower these past two weeks. From the unwarranted insults hurled at Mexico and Mexicans by Donald Trump to the response to the shooting of a 32-year-old woman by an undocumented Mexican in San Francisco — a tragedy wrongly seen as symbolic of the behavior of 11 million illegal immigrants — the behavior has been unbecoming a diverse and democratic nation built by immigrants.
It would be one thing if Mr. Trump's anti-Mexican invective (which dates back to at least his presidential announcement in mid-June) had been softened, reversed or universally condemned, but it has not. Despite losing some business (NBC, Macy's, ESPN, NASCAR and the PGA), the reality TV tycoon has seen his popularity grow in a splintered Republican field with fellow candidates including Sen. Ted Cruz, former Sen. Rick Santorum and Ben Carson giving Mr. Trump some cover. In North Carolina, a recent poll has him leading the Republican field, and nationally, the latest CNN/ORC International poll pegged him in second place behind former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush despite June polls that suggested the loud-mouthed New York real estate developer with the comb-over was barely in the top 10.
Meanwhile, the July 1 death of Kate Steinle, apparently randomly shot while walking on a busy public pier with her father, has been trotted out as evidence that undocumented immigrants are dangerous. The suspect in the case, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, has been convicted of multiple felonies but was released from a city jail a mere three months earlier, and local authorities having ignored a request to turn him over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for deportation. Under a 2013 local sanctuary law, San Francisco restricts its police from cooperating with federal immigration authorities in certain cases.
But the law was clearly never meant to protect repeat felony offenders such as Mr. Lopez-Sanchez, who has been deported before. He stands accused of a truly despicable crime, yes, but he is no more typical of Mexican immigrants than Jeffrey Dahmer was representative of Wisconsinites. It's not even clear whether the sanctuary law played a role in this particular case or whether it was more a matter of bureaucratic miscommunication or misunderstanding. Such laws are intended to make communities safer by guaranteeing that victims of crime as well as witnesses can step forward without fear of deportation, not to shield violent felons from that fate.
Indeed, if there is a lesson to be derived from the incident, it's the need for ICE to focus on rounding up undocumented immigrants who have committed serious crimes and not on the vast majority of immigrants who are law-abiding and came to this country, like generations before them, to seek freedom and opportunity. Yet President Barack Obama's efforts to do exactly this have been stymied, with his executive action of last year currently in legal limbo courtesy of the 5th District U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Are illegal immigrants committing crimes? Some absolutely are. There are criminals to be found among any large group of human beings no matter where they were born. But studies show that crime rates among undocumented immigrants are lower than among native-born Americans. Among males 18-to-39, the per-capita incarceration rate of native-born is about twice that of immigrants, according to a recent analysis of 2010 Census data. Federal prisons have a higher number of undocumented inmates (a fact anti-immigrant groups love to point out), but that's a product of federal enforcement of immigration laws, not overall crime patterns.
Still, it's a time-tested political strategy to demonize the latest wave of immigrants and stoke public fear of them rampaging through cities, pillaging, looting, murdering and raping women. But as the nation's Latino population grows and Americans in general become more aware of the reality of immigration, it's increasingly unwise, particularly for any party that seeks to capture the White House. That's why Donald Trump and his ilk have GOP party bosses and big donors tearing their hair out and why this summer of anti-Mexican foment has not only been vile and distasteful but also truly idiotic.