Spotlight On Migrant Crimes Drums Up Support For Trump's Immigration Dragnet

Apr 3, 2017
Originally published on April 3, 2017 4:50 pm

As Donald Trump regularly spotlights violent crimes committed by immigrants who are in the country illegally, outrage is increasingly bubbling up in communities across the country.

In San Antonio last month, authorities charged 35-year-old Armando Rodrigo Garcia-Ramires, a Mexican national, with double capital murder in the shooting death of a 15-year-old girl, who was nine months pregnant with his child. The fetus died, too.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed that Garcia-Ramires was in the country illegally. Under the Obama administration, Garcia-Ramires was twice picked up by federal immigration agents, released both times, and later granted a work permit.

"If he had been detained and deported for being here illegally the first time around, the impregnation, the murder, the crime would have been avoided," says George Rodriguez, who writes a blog and hosts an Internet radio show called El Conservador, or The Conservative, from his home in San Antonio.

Trump and his administration have pledged to deport more unauthorized immigrants arrested for or charged with crimes — people the president has referred to as "bad hombres" — as part of a broader effort to more aggressively enforce federal immigration laws. And the San Antonio case enraged conservatives across the spectrum.

In Washington, Sen. Charles Grassley, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee that oversees immigration, fired off a letter to ICE demanding answers. Grassley also asked ICE about two teenaged immigrants who are charged with allegedly raping a classmate in the bathroom of a high school in Rockville, Md., last month.

The San Antonio story was covered by local media and by national outlets like Breitbart News, which featured it prominently on its website. And the story popped up on scores of right-wing websites. Rodriguez, of El Conservador, writes once a week about the worst crimes he can find committed by unauthorized immigrants.

"And once a week, I come up with at least five, six of them committed in diverse places like Minnesota," he tells NPR in an interview. "There was a case in Massachusetts not too long ago that I read about where a teacher was murdered by her illegal immigrant boyfriend. They're everywhere."

The boyfriend in the Massachusetts case has pleaded not guilty. Garcia-Ramires has not yet entered a plea in that case.

Critics of the Trump administration say no one argues these are serious crimes and that the victims deserve sympathy. But those critics believe that focusing on the birthplace and immigration status of a criminal has the effect of demonizing all unauthorized immigrants.

"This attempt to use an anecdote to try to set up a false paradigm that there are good immigrants and bad immigrants is really just an attempt to call all immigrants bad," says Jonathan Ryan. He's an immigration attorney in San Antonio and director of the nonprofit RAICES, which advocates for immigrants.

Ryan says a defendant should be charged, tried and adjudicated on the facts of the crime, not his immigration status.

"We undermine that criminal justice system by saying that immigrants need some kind of separate system of justice," he says. "What we're really doing is saying that we don't trust and we don't believe in our own Constitution that affords fundamental rights, including due process, to all people in this country."

Immigration hardliners insist he's missing the point.

Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports Trump's crackdown, says the public should be outraged about the uneven enforcement of immigration laws. She tweets prolifically on immigrant crimes. "But I don't think that translates into a generalized hostility toward immigrants," Vaughan says.

For well over a century, immigrants have faced hostility in the United States going back to Italians, Irish and Chinese. Social science research dating back nearly as long has consistently found there is no link between immigrants and criminality.

The contemporary question is whether studies find a correlation between immigrants who are here unlawfully and crime. On this question, there is a paucity of research.

Bianca Bersani, a criminologist at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, investigates immigration and crime. She says more researchers are looking at this subset of unauthorized immigrants who are much in the news.

"So far, the research is not finding that the undocumented is offending or being rearrested at rates that are any different from the U.S.-born population," Bersani says. She added that she is working on a project that compares criminal behavior among two groups of first-generation immigrants — one here illegally and the other here legally.

What is certain is that the increasing focus on the worst immigrant crimes — whether justified or not — helps to drum up support for the president's immigration dragnet.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

President Trump regularly spotlights violent crimes committed by immigrants in the country illegally. His administration has pledged to deport more of these so-called bad hombres. That outrage is increasingly bubbling up in communities across this country, but to what end? NPR's John Burnett has our story.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Early last month, San Antonio residents listening to the evening news on KENS TV heard a particularly grim crime story.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR #1: Good evening. A man charged with shooting and killing a pregnant teen is now behind bars.

UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR #2: Police arrested 35-year-old Armando Rodrigo Garcia-Ramirez (ph) for shooting and killing 15-year-old Jennifer Delgado.

BURNETT: Police said the slain teenager was nine months pregnant with the man's child. The fetus died too. Today, Garcia-Ramirez is charged with double capital murder. And there's more. Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirms that he's a Mexican national who was in the United States illegally. Under the Obama administration, Garcia-Ramirez was twice picked up by immigration agents, released both times and later granted a work permit.

The San-Antonio-pregnant-teenager double murder enraged conservatives across the spectrum. In Washington, Senator Charles Grassley, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee that oversees immigration, fired off a letter to ICE demanding answers. Breitbart featured the story prominently, and it popped up on scores of right-wing websites.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE RODRIGUEZ: Howdy, howdy, my friends. George Rodriguez, El Conservador, talking to you from San Antonio deep in the heart of south Texas. Let's talk about immigration news today.

BURNETT: George Rodriguez writes a blog and does an Internet radio show under the name El Conservador, the conservative. Once a week, he writes about the worst crimes he can find committed by unauthorized immigrants. He sat down for an interview last week.

RODRIGUEZ: And once a week, I come up with at least five, six of them committed in diverse places, like Minnesota. There was a case in Massachusetts not too long ago that I read about where a teacher was murdered by her illegal immigrant boyfriend. They're everywhere.

BURNETT: The boyfriend in that case has pleaded not guilty. No one argues these are serious crimes, and the victims deserve our sympathy. But critics believe that focusing on the birthplace and immigration status of a criminal demonizes all unauthorized immigrants.

JONATHAN RYAN: This attempt to use an anecdote to try to set up a false paradigm that there are good immigrants or bad immigrants is really just an attempt to call all immigrants bad.

BURNETT: Jonathan Ryan is an immigration attorney in San Antonio and director of a nonprofit called RAICES that advocates for immigrants. He sits in a coffee shop for an interview. The point Ryan and others make is that a defendant should be charged, tried and adjudicated on the facts of the crime, not his immigration status.

RYAN: We undermine that criminal justice system. By saying that immigrants need some kind of separate system of justice, what we're really doing is saying that we don't trust and we don't believe in our own Constitution that affords fundamental rights, including due process, to all people in this country - immigrant, nonimmigrant.

BURNETT: But wait. Immigration hardliners insist that's not their point. El Conservador blogger George Rodriguez returns to the San Antonio murders.

RODRIGUEZ: If he had been detained and deported for being here illegally the first time around, the impregnation, the murder, the crime would have been avoided.

BURNETT: What the public should be outraged about is the uneven enforcement of immigration laws, says Jessica Vaughan. She tweets prolifically on immigrant crimes at the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports Trump's crackdown.

JESSICA VAUGHAN: But I don't think that that translates into a generalized hostility toward immigrants.

BURNETT: For well over a century, immigrants have faced hostility in the United States, going back to Italians, Poles and Irish. Social science research stretching back almost as far has consistently found there is no link between immigrants and criminality. The contemporary question is whether studies find a correlation between immigrants who are here unlawfully and crime.

On this question, there is a paucity of research. Bianca Bersani, a criminologist at the University of Massachusetts Boston, investigates immigration and crime. She says more and more researchers are looking at this subset of unauthorized immigrants who are much in the news. And as data become available...

BIANCA BERSANI: So far, the research is not finding that the undocumented is offending or being re-arrested at rates that are any different from the U.S.-born population.

BURNETT: What is certain is the abundance of attention being paid to the worst immigrant crimes, whether justified or not, helps to drum up support for the president's aggressive immigration dragnet. John Burnett, NPR News, San Antonio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.