Criminologist Discusses Intersection of Criminal Justice and Immigration

Xavier Perez, a criminology faculty member, is pictured here teaching at the Cook County Jail in May 2019 as part of the national Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. (DePaul University/Jeff Carrion)

Immigration has been a politically charged topic for decades in the U.S. What’s missing from the discussion is consideration of criminal justice practice and policy, says Xavier Perez, a criminology faculty member in DePaul University’s College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. He calls the intersection of the two “crimmigation” and says that although immigration was once a civil law issue, immigrants now find themselves more often under the jurisdiction of criminal law, which can have far-reaching consequences.

For example, many local municipalities receive economic incentives from the federal government to enforce federal law, he says.

“All of this can have a local effect,” says Perez. “We’ve learned that effective policing involves working with communities to deal with crime. However, if the police are seen as playing a key role in deportations, there’s a good chance the neighborhood won’t work with them. These policies strain relationships between police and immigrant communities and don’t make the community safer.”

In this Q&A, Perez discusses the real-life effects of living under the radar for undocumented immigrants, and common misconceptions about immigrants and crime.

The Illinois Way Forward Act will no longer allow U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain immigrants in city and county jails in Illinois. Why would you consider this a necessary move?

The Illinois Way Forward Act provides due process protections to immigrants. Immigration is a civil issue. As such, immigration concerns should be resolved administratively, not through the criminal process. Most undocumented immigrants come to the attention of law enforcement for traffic violations, not violent offenses. They should not be detained in jail for these low-level offenses while their immigration cases proceed.

It’s also important to note that according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, about 74% of the nearly 21,000 immigrants and asylum-seekers in ICE custody had no criminal convictions.

It’s well documented that living in the shadows of society can have a negative effect on immigrants. Can you explain?

There are many examples. Undocumented immigrants who are victims of domestic violence or sexual assault are at a greater risk of longer exposure of abuse because they have a fear of deportation or a misunderstanding about the police and the U.S. legal system.

Undocumented immigrants also often deal with trauma and stressors before, during and after immigration. The American Psychiatric Association writes about how undocumented immigrants often make the journey to the U.S. to escape violence, poverty, political oppression, threats or natural disasters. They then experience violence and extreme hazards during their journey before making the tough adjustment to the U.S. with limited resources and a constant fear of deportation.

All of this leads to a higher risk for depressive disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance use disorders, according to the APA. Compared to U.S.-born Latinos, undocumented immigrant Latinos are more likely to have multiple psychosocial problems, including those related to employment, access to health care and the legal system. However, undocumented immigrant Latinos use fewer mental health services than U.S.-born Latinos do.

Immigration policy critics often say undocumented immigrants bring crime to the U.S. What do the statistics say?

There is a misconception about immigration and crime. Research has found that in the U.S., foreign-born populations are less criminally involved than native-born populations. One study released in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) found that in Texas between 2012-18, U.S.-born citizens were over two times more likely to be arrested for violent crimes, 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes and over four times more likely to be arrested for property crimes than undocumented immigrants. The same study thus concluded that deporting undocumented immigrants who possess relatively low felony crime rates is unlikely to reduce the overall amount of crime in a given area.

Immigrants revitalize social networks, which indirectly lowers crime rates. They draw on social networks to secure things like employment, housing and social services. The social networks strengthen informal social controls within a community. In addition, they come to the U.S. to find work. High rates of work participation lowers poverty levels, which again, indirectly lower crime rates.

Through the years, immigrants have come to the U.S. to seek a better life and to provide for their families. There are countless examples that if provided the opportunity, immigrants can and do contribute to the mosaic of American society.

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