Here’s What to Know About “Crimmigration”

Don’t get me wrong, I like reading and writing about The Bachelor, the latest style trends and cool restaurants to try this summer as much as the next girl. But, in the midst of all that and whatever we have going on in our busy lives, we have to remember to read up on what’s happening in the world and to think critically about the way our society works. So, today I am going to be talking about crimmigration. I know you might be thinking, what the heck is that? If that’s the case, keep reading.

Crimmigration can be defined as the “merging of the U.S. penal system with the immigration enforcement process” (Ortega & Lasch 2014). Criminalization + immigration= crimmigration. Immigration has been treated as a civil matter throughout most of U.S. history, but now most immigration cases are being turned over to the Department of Justice, which positions immigration as a crime. With the increasing number of immigrants in the U.S. in the past several decades, the election of President Trump and of course, the prison industrial complex, crimmigration has become an extremely #relevant issue. Okay, whoa. Let’s slow down. You may know that the United States incarcerates more people per capita than any other country. That’s right, we hold just 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners. Yikes! Clearly, prisons play a big role in how the U.S. operates and, with the privatization of prisons especially, the prison system has become big business and integrated into many other powerful institutions. This is what I was talking about when I said prison-industrial complex. The phenomenon of crimmigration is what sociologist Michael Welch calls a “new penology;” “whereas traditional penology stems from criminal law and criminology and has emphasized punishing and correcting individual offenders, the new penology adopts an actuarial approach in which specialist assess the risk of specific criminal subpopulations (for example, drug offenders) and recommend strategies that attempt to control these aggregates” (Welch 2000). Basically, society no longer seems to be concerned with rehabilitation (if it ever was is up for debate), but new policies seem to reflect social control. Yeah, so that’s my explanation of the prison-industrial complex in a paragraph. This is important because mass incarceration in the 1960s and more “tough on crime” policies help explain why we are now seeing things traditionally thought of as civil problems, causing no harm or threat to others (i.e. immigration) being highly criminalized.

This issue comes under a brighter light when you consider the fact that ICE (Immigrant and Customs Enforcement) now has a budget of $7.1 billion— an increase of $641 million from the previous fiscal year (Shahshahani 2018). I’m no math major, but that’s almost 10%--in one year?! Noncitizens make up the fastest growing segment of the prison population. And this is not because noncitizens are more violent or that there is a huge increase in undocumented immigrants, but, you guessed it, race and class profiling. Things like “mandatory detention for suspected immigration violators, newly created categories of violation, increased patrolling, and lengthened detention periods” are to blame (Whitt 2015). And, it’s not just officials who think immigrants are more dangerous and violent and therefore need more patrol. As of 2017, “almost half of Americans agreed that immigrants make crime worse” (Flagg 2018). But, statistics show just the opposite. In fact, “in 136 metro areas, almost 70 percent of those studies, the immigrant population increased between 1980 and 2016 while crime stayed stable or fell” (Flagg 2018). So, the idea (myth) that immigrants are violent criminals is alive and well; problem number one.

Alright, so now we have established that there are a lot of issues in the way officials as well as the general public view immigrants and crime. Now let’s talk about how this is affecting the criminal justice system. According to an article written in The Washington Post just earlier this month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that “the Justice Department will seek to criminally prosecute all people unlawfully crossing the southern border with Mexico” (Brennan 2018). This is going to cause some serious problems. It is predicted that with Sessions’s new plan, immigration cases would represent more than 85 percent of all criminal prosecutions. WHAT? Author of The Washington Post article Liam Brennan states “these aren’t hardened criminals, but tempest-tossed souls seeking better lives for themselves and their families… Prosecuting these cases presents a systematic danger to the American legal system because it so thoroughly divorces moral wrongdoing from criminal prosecutions” (Brennan 2018). Okay, so overcrowding of the legal system makes for problem number two.

Conditions in detainment centers are less than satisfactory. Immigrants are held for an average of 13 months. They are denied adequate medical care, work in an exploitative labor program and are given inadequate or even inedible food. In addition, “if those in detention complain about the conditions, the facility is swift to place them in retaliatory solitary confinement” (Shahshahani 2018). The deaths of those with treatable conditions is proof of this. There have also been reports of young people who have committed suicide in solitary confinement rather than being treated for a mental illness. I think that brings us to problem number 3: inadequate conditions in detainment centers.

            Along with that, the increased presence of officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection has weakened security and increased fear amongst the immigrant community. A survey conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union and National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project found that the fear of deportation is stopping immigrants from reporting crimes and participating in court hearings (Mehta 2018). Funny how we think we are solving the “problem of immigrant crime” when in fact we are only making matters worse AND creating another problem— excluding a population from the court system. Oh, man.  And the numbers are substantial; “more than 50% of police surveyed said domestic violence, human trafficking and sexual assault crimes are now harder to investigate because immigrant crime survivors are afraid to seek assistance. 54% of judges participating in this survey reported that court cases were interrupted due to an immigrant crime survivors’ fear of coming to court” (Mehta 2018). And if you don’t find this is shocking enough on its own, think of the challenge this creates for officers, judges, prosecutors and advocates to do their job when people don’t feel safe coming forward with information for fear that they will be labeled criminals themselves! The safety of the broader community is threatened. That makes for problem number 4: fear of immigrant victims coming forward for fear it will only lead to their own criminalization.

            Alright, stay with me. I have one more problem to point out. Let’s talk about women! Specifically Latina women, since “from 1991 to the late 2000s, the number of Latino/as incarcerated quadrupled, accounting for over half of the growth in sentenced offenders” (Cervantes, Menjivar, & Staples 2017). The theme of social control that I have been talking about throughout this article is heightened when it comes to women (and children) who “must check-in multiple times a day with the guards and their time is scheduled and movements in the facilities restricted” (Cervantes, Menjivar, & Staples 2017). Essentially, women in detainment centers are treated like prisoners and their emotional and spiritual well-being suffers. In addition, women are at higher risk for experiencing physical and sexual assault. The separation from family members can also take a huge toll on women; “during detention, some immigrant women are separated for long periods from their (often U.S. citizen) children, producing mental and emotional trauma in the children and in the women” (Cervantes, Menjivar, & Staples 2017). And as a result, people are quick to label these women as “bad mothers.” Ah, the cycle continues. So the failure of immigration detainment centers to recognize the unique challenges faced by women brings us to problem number 5. Of course, there are several other problems, but I am not trying to write a senior thesis right now.

Okay, so how are we doing? We have more immigrants coming to the land of the free, but they are not welcomed here. Instead, they are threatened and risk jail time if they do muster the courage to try for a better life. The Justice system is overburdened by its own mandates and this increases risk for all of us. Rather than see immigration as a civil matter with an eye toward providing a hand up to would-be citizens, we are seeing it as a crime against American society, a society that has been called a “melting pot.” Now we are guarding the doors? There is much more to say about this topic, and that may be for a future post. For now, I hope this article encourages you to educate yourself about these issues and to start discussing them in your everyday lives. Something's gotta change!!