Commentary

How to Deal with Immigrant Crime

Immigrants are less crime-prone than native-born Americans but that is small solace to those affected by criminals born in another country. Since 2010, 124 unlawful immigrants released by the U.S. government have been charged with 135 homicide-related crimes according to information obtained by the House Judiciary Committee.

Many of those criminals were released by the government accidentally. Pablo Antonio Serrano-Vitorino was initially deported in April 2004 but reentered illegally sometime after that. He was then arrested at least twice for crimes and released due to clerical errors. In one case, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials sent a request to detain him at the Johnson Valley, Missouri Sheriff’s Office but Serrano-Vitorino was at the nearby Overland Park Municipal Court paying a fine. That was all before he allegedly murdered five people in Kansas and Missouri earlier this month.

Serrano-Vitorino likely reentered illegally from Mexico. Since 1992, the number of border patrol agents has increased five-fold, incentivizing unlawful migrants to increasingly rely on smugglers. According to a 2010 Department of Homeland Security analysis, about 90 percent of unlawful immigrants who crossed the border used a smuggler.

A refocused immigration system requires a more open one that focuses on a few tasks — keeping out criminals, national security threats, and those with serious diseases.

More border security brought higher prices that incentivized people to enter the human smuggling business. According to the high-end estimates of black market prices, Mexican unlawful immigrants pay about $4000 to $9000 to be smuggled into the United States. Smuggling routes usually help peaceful workers travel to jobs in the United States but they can also transport serious criminals.

This smuggling industry is a post-1964 phenomenon. Prior to that year, Mexican migrants could come legally for work and go as they pleased on the Bracero guest worker visa program. It decreased the flow of unlawful immigrants by 95 percent in the two years after it was created. 

Historian Ernesto Galarza wrote that Bracero destroyed unlawful immigration because even the most reluctant U.S. employer “could see that the private black market was no longer vital, now that a public one could be created.” Bracero incentivized farmers to hire Braceros and the migrants to enter legally. As a result, Bracero shrunk the black market and allowed the Border Patrol to focus on those who remained illegal who were more likely to be violent and property criminals.

In the 1950s, a Border Patrol official warned that if the Bracero program was ever “repealed or a restriction placed on the number of braceros allowed to enter the United States, we can look forward to a large increase in the number of illegal alien entrants into the United States.” That is what happened except the resulting smuggling network also allowed real criminals like Serrano-Vitorino to enter.   

Smuggling became the norm when the government ended the Bracero program in 1964 and replaced it with nothing. Mexican workers continued to come illegally because repealing the Bracero program didn’t kill the economic demand for them. Instead of regulating the legal system and keeping out criminals, Border Patrol was stuck with the impossible task of stopping eager U.S. employers from hiring willing unlawful immigrants. It has failed ever since.

Even so, the government’s immigration enforcement priorities don’t make sense. New York based immigrant attorney Bryan Johnson told me, “the U.S. government is prioritizing removals of children over individuals with criminal convictions.” The government is holding many of the 245,000 Central American unaccompanied children who have come since 2009 in detention facilities while releasing others on ankle bracelets.

Those children are going first immigration court, creating a precarious situation. “The government’s priorities are totally backwards,” Johnson told me. “Immigrants with some serious convictions have their hearings delayed for years while I’m spending all of my time in court defending young children and women who came here seeking asylum.”

Our immigration system treats child asylum-seekers and peaceful workers as criminals and treats criminals as minor offenders. If the government deregulated and expanded legal immigration, the unlawful immigrant population would shrink and allow the government to focus entirely on violent and property offenders like Serrano-Vitorino.

There is no policy that will bring back the victims of Serrano-Vitorino or the other alleged murderers. All we can do is punish those convicted for those heinous crimes and make them less likely in the future. One essential reform to do that is to reprioritize the government’s immigration policy to keep out criminals and others likely to harm us.

A refocused immigration system requires a more open one that focuses on a few tasks — keeping out criminals, national security threats, and those with serious diseases. If, instead, everyone seeking to come here is treated like a criminal then the system will be overwhelmed and unable to target the most dangerous.

Alex Nowrasteh is immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute.