The centerpiece of Presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s immigration policy proposal is a multi-billion dollar wall between Mexico and the United States. Trump justifies the need for this wall when he claims that Mexican immigrants “are bringing drugs and they are bringing crime, and they’re rapists.” These claims, however, are not rooted in reality. Moreover, Trump’s proposal to build a wall would be an enormous waste of resources.
It makes little sense to propose a wall to keep Mexican immigrants out of the United States during a time when Mexican immigration is declining. A recent article by migration experts Douglas Massey, Jorge Durand, and Karen Prend makes it clear that undocumented migration from Mexico is dropping and will continue to drop due to demographic changes in Mexico. Douglas Massey and other experts have provided extensive evidence that border enforcement has no effect on undocumented migrant crossings. Instead, migration flows from Mexico are determined by employment trends in the United States and Mexico. Only 5 percent of Mexican immigrants in the United States today have arrived since 2010. There is no need to build a wall to keep Mexican immigrants out as the migration flow is subsiding on its own.
The fear of an ever-increasing undocumented population is unfounded. The overall number of undocumented immigrants in the United States has remained stable since 2006. During this same time period, the number of undocumented Mexican immigrants has fallen by one million. The overall population of undocumented immigrants has remained stable while Mexican immigration has declined because of the influx of undocumented Asian immigrants. If the goal is to further reduce the flow of undocumented immigrants, building a wall at the Mexican border is the wrong place to start.
Why, then, has Trump made this outlandish proposal not only to build a wall but also to make Mexico pay for the wall? The reason is that it is easier for a politician to tap into the negative feelings many white Americans have towards Mexicans than to address the complex realities of immigration and immigration reform in the United States.
Trump makes facile and baseless connections between Mexican immigrants and crime to play on voters’ fears and stereotypes and thereby attract attention to himself.
Much of what Trumps asserts is divorced from reality. For example, Trump argues Mexican leaders have been sending crime and poverty from Mexico to the United States. I will address crime in a minute, but how can you export poverty? People are poor if they are unemployed or employed in jobs that do not pay them enough to get by. Given that most Mexican immigrants were employed in Mexico prior to leaving, and labor force participation among undocumented immigrants is very high, it is hard to make the case that undocumented Mexicans are poor because they do not work. It is true that over a quarter of Mexican immigrant families live in poverty, but this is because they work in low-wage jobs in the United States. The blame for their poverty falls on their employers, not on Mexico for exporting poor people. If Trump wants to end poverty, raising the minimum wage is a much better starting point than building a wall.
When Trump makes the claim that Mexico is exporting crime and poverty, he is tapping into stereotypes white Americans have about Mexicans rather than basing his claims in reality.
Trump uses at least two faulty tactics to make his case for enhancing immigration policy. First, he draws from the tragic story of a crime committed by one undocumented immigrant to criminalize the whole population. This is a tactic used exclusively against people of color. Few people are generalizing from Dylann Roof’s massacre at a black church to make the claim that all white men are dangerous. The second tactic is to misconstrue statistics. Trump does this by pointing out that there were three million arrests of immigrants without explaining that the top arrest category for immigrants was for immigration offenses and the next top three categories were drugs, traffic violations, and obstruction of justice. Instead, Trump focuses on the violent crimes that make up a small fraction of these arrests. Also, Trump chose to use the high number of arrests instead of focusing on the actual number of non-citizens charged with crimes. The GAO report he cites estimates that there were 55,000 non-citizens in federal penitentiaries in 2009 and 296,000 in state and local jails.
A more detailed report on immigrants and crime rates by immigration experts Walter Ewing, Daniel Martinez, and Rubén Rumbaut dissects these data on immigrants and crime. They found that 1.6 percent of immigrant males aged 18-39 are incarcerated, as compared to 3.3 percent of native born men in that age group. If we look at native-born men without a high school degree, we find that 10.7 percent of them are behind bars, as compared to 2.8 percent of Mexican men without a high school degree. In short, immigrants are less likely to be incarcerated than the native born. Moreover, as the number of immigrants increased between 1990 and 2013, the rate of violent crime fell by 48 percent and property crime fell by 41 percent. There is little concrete evidence for a connection between undocumented immigration and crime rates.
The United States is experiencing neither an increase in crime nor an increase in undocumented immigrants. Nevertheless, Presidential hopeful Donald Trump preys on fears of immigrants and crime to develop unsound and ultimately harmful policy proposals. He does this by tapping into widespread stereotypes about Mexican immigrants. He is not directing his ire at Asian immigrants for example because few people would believe that Chinese immigrants are coming to the United States to rob, steal, and rape.
The fact that a Presidential hopeful is leading in the polls with this kind of hateful rhetoric is disheartening. However, it is also a reminder that immigration policy proposals in this country are very often based on scapegoating and finger-pointing rather than on facts.