The Evils of Governing by Anecdote-by Ryan Campbell, Esq.
Ryan Campbell is a graduate of CUNY School of Law with a degree in Criminal Justice from Northeastern University. A founding member of Dream Action Coalition, author, immigration attorney and immigrant rights advocate, Ryan has written on immigrant rights, LGBT rights, women’s rights and voting rights for the Huffington Post, Daily Kos, The Hill and others.
The Evils of Governing by Anecdote
Extreme incidents, be they a large-scale terrorist acts or smaller-scale incidents that still make national news, can shock people and nations into action. They often, however, aren’t indications of particular trends that should motivate policy that would increase public safety. Under the Trump Administration, we have seen an extreme perversion of FDR’s “fireside chats” that have played on the insecurities of white America. This has included such false promises as turning back the clock on energy technology and returning a token number of jobs in the dying coal industry to Appalachia. No subject has been more warped, however, than stories involving immigration and immigrants.
Every immigrant rights advocate saw this coming from a mile away: not only was candidate Trump’s opening salvo after his golden escalator ride to decry undocumented Mexicans as rapists and criminals, but he followed it up shortly after the election with the creation of the office of Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE). The entire reason for it’s existence is to amass and publicize stories of crimes of undocumented immigrants.
This isn’t particularly difficult: with roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country, this huge population of people runs the entire spectrum of the human experience. From the lowliest, most abhorrent criminal to the most saintly single mother working her fingers to the bone to provide for her family and community, if you grabbed any 11 million people off of the street, you’d find both. There simply is no way that any group of 11 million people could not have someone “cherry pick” extreme examples to prove whatever point or interpretation of data they wish.
Considering our President, cherry picking was an obvious plan. Trump’s entire communication style is a mixture of P.T. Barnum and L. Ron Hubbard: an over the top personality with no regard for facts (i.e. his “alternative facts”) who relies on anecdotes and a cult of personality to bury the truth shown by larger trends.
This is clear in the fact that, while insecurities on immigration are running high around issues like jobs and crimes, the jobs that are being lost are more due to outsourcing and automation than immigration.
Looking to the crime aspect, we see that immigrants commit fewer crimes than their American-born counterparts, and undocumented immigrants commit even fewer than their documented immigrant counterparts. This is at least partially out of fear of deportation and not wanting any contact with law enforcement.
This fear of law enforcement (which is at a peak considering high-profile family separations and anti-immigrant rhetoric), in fact, has been known to increase crimes as the undocumented community becomes more fearful of reaching out to the police. This often holds true of citizens who merely have undocumented family members in the same home. Additionally, if informants in the undocumented community are too afraid to report criminals, those criminals are free to continue to victimize people in the undocumented community, as well as the broader public.
Anecdotes of media- and government-selected high profile crimes, like the killing of Kathryn Steinle or Mollie Tibets, both terrible incidents, play on deep insecurities and often unconscious biases. These stories would not ordinarily make so much news, except that it was an attractive young white woman being killed by an unsympathetic character without immigration status: it’s the same sort of dynamic that created the “Crime of the Century” mentality that put the Central Park 5 in prison for so many years.
Sentiments like these come from a long tradition of people testifying to the evils of a particular immigrant and trying to impute this guilt to immigrants in general, i.e. the scapegoating of my own Irish ancestors when they escaped starvation to NYC on the potato boats: it’s a cheap shot against a broad population that has never been so thoroughly perfected as it is now with actual government offices becoming public relations against immigration.
Today, even conservative Republicans are shocked by seeing families being separated at the border for seeking asylum guaranteed under both US and international law. President Trump and Attorney General Sessions, however, are trying flip the script and convince the American public that there is an undocumented boogeyman hiding under every bed. This has helped to derail some of the momentum behind what was becoming a bi-partisan sentiment supporting some sort of end to the zero tolerance policy or family unification.
With Trump desperate to change the national narrative away from Mueller and Cohen, we can expect him to make another golden escalator speech about the evils of immigrants to any MAGA crowd he can pack into a large venue.
The policies that will stem from these stories that run 100% counter to what social science, crime statistics and trends would imply. This ultimately harms relations between the undocumented and police, undermines public safety and wastes precious policing resources as the Administration continues it’s policy of zero tolerance.
All of this is done to appeal to the least tolerant Americans that were already inclined to hate immigrants and immigration. While the crimes highlighted are indeed horrible, they are in no way indicative of the larger trends that need to be pragmatically addressed to improve public safety and prevent future crime.