The “Dangerous” Immigrant: Confronting Our Implicit Bias

Today the House Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing attacking sanctuary cities under the guise of public safety, a perspective that would have you believe that our country is being overrun by so-called “criminal aliens.”

As advocates who work towards an inclusive society that welcomes immigrants of all backgrounds, we often engage in myth-busting to rightfully reject such claims. Yet rarely do we openly speak of the elephant in the room: the deeply-rooted, unconscious bias against immigrants that lies at the heart of nativist-tinged calls to “keep our communities safe.”

We cannot ignore the policies and laws that have provided fertile ground for such a bias to flourish. Most of it comes from the Illegal Immigration Reform & Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), a 1996 federal law that set the foundation for today’s mass detention and deportation system, and is seeing its 20th anniversary next week.

The concept of local police and federal immigration collusion was introduced in the 1980s, but IIRIRA added steroids to this collusion through creation of a program called 287(g). 287(g) specifically gave local police the power to question, arrest and jail anyone they suspected to be an immigrant on the streets and inside of jails. The program ushered in an era of surveillance justified upon immigration status, creating cities where the lines between police and Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) were not simply blurred, but were clearly merged: the police as ICE and ICE as police. IIRIRA fueled a narrative to keep “dangerous criminals off the streets,” equating lack of citizenship to an increased risk of public safety.

Yet statistics paint a vastly different picture. Studies show that as the immigration population has grown, crime has declined. The undocumented population more than tripled from 1990-2013, whereas FBI data indicates that the violent crime rate declined 48 percent over the same time period. In immigration gateway cities like Miami, El Paso, and San Diego, high rates of immigration are correlated with lower rates of violent and property crime. During a 2012 Chicago news station interview, a top U.S. Department of Justice statistician debunked the correlation between Cook County’s policy to refuse to work with ICE on deportations with increased risk in public safety, concluding that immigrants released from jail did not actually pose a greater risk than citizens.

Despite this evidence, prejudice and bias against immigrants are now part of the fabric of our legal system and our American psyche, a toxic combination that whittles away at justice and is the antithesis of inclusion policies.

The field of mind science attributes the kind of negative perceptions that fuel the scapegoating of immigrants, African-Americans and other marginalized communities to a phenomenon called implicit bias, or attitudes and associations that occur at a subconscious level. As john a. powell, Director of U.C. Berkeley’s Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society notes, “implicit or unconscious biases not only affect our perceptions, but our policies and institutional arrangements. Therefore, these biases influence the types of outcomes we see across a variety of contexts: school, labor, housing, health, criminal justice system and so forth.”

We see these biases and racialized violence every day as heartbreaking displays of daily acts of police brutality dominate our news feeds. With the growth of immigration policing and prisons, similar violence has influenced our immigration system. The time is now to examine how the federal government, and by extension, the localities that it contracts with, use biased policing as a tool to paint immigrants as criminals and facilitate deportation.

How can we envision a new reality? In her TED talk, Verna Myers offered this vision to her audience: “Can you imagine our country embracing young black men, seeing them as part of our future, giving them that kind of openness, that kind of grace we give to people we love? How much better would our lives be? How much better would our country be?”

Can you imagine our country also doing the same for immigrants of all backgrounds?

And how might we get there?

We need real solutions to reforming our criminal legal system, not bias-based approaches that blame communities of color and immigrants for our society’s troubles. At a minimum, we should strive for due process and equal protection under the law for everyone regardless of race, citizenship status, religion and other factors. We should disentangle local law enforcement from deportation and end policing programs like 287(g).

We need to support the difficult and necessary work of examining and addressing the root causes of violence in our communities and dismantle the systems that lean upon this dysfunction to thrive.

We need to redefine what community safety really means for us and our loved ones – beyond more policing, incarceration and deportation.

Most importantly, we need to grapple with the discomfort of the implicit biases that we hold in order to expand our circle of human concern to embrace all immigrants, including those with criminal convictions.

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