Over the past few weeks, while everyone’s attention was riveted on the Wall Street meltdown and the debates, agents of the federal, state and local governments fanned out through Riverside and San Bernardino counties and cities across the country arresting illegal immigrants by the thousands.
Led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement teams, the agents swept up more than 2,909 men, women and children in two full-scale operations.
The arrestees were taken away for “processing”—a loose term that may include deportation or months-long or even years-long incarceration in U.S. prisons, we really don’t know which. ICE, in two separate press releases, assures that one of the sweeps was for fugitive gang members and criminal fugitives—all in the States illegally—and that the operation netted some really bad guys.
“Street gangs prey on the neighborhoods in which they operate and they instill fear through intimidation and violence,” assures Julie L. Myers, assistant secretary of Homeland Security for ICE, in the release. “By partnering with other law enforcement agencies across the country, we are successfully targeting these gangs, arresting their leaders, disrupting their operations, and putting their members and associates behind bars.”
Myers’ statement, essentially the official explanation for the mass arrests of thousands, suggests that those targeted represented the worst of the hordes of criminal foreigners currently bedeviling our nation. By extension, she suggests the arrests have made America a safer, better country for the rest of us.
This would be great news were it not complete and utter crap. The great majority of the arrestees were, in fact, nonviolent immigrants guilty only of being in the country without proper documentation. By seizing these people in massive law-enforcement sweeps and then portraying them as menacing thugs in order to make the sweeps more palatable, Myers and her colleagues at ICE has made America a far less safe place for everyone.
ICE reports that of the 1,759 people arrested in that sweep (which the agency tellingly dubbed “a public safety surge”), “nearly 1,500 were gang members, gang associates or individuals with prior criminal records—including more than 30 percent with violent criminal histories and 17 gang leaders.” The rest were simply illegal immigrants who, from their perspective, were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Three of the 1,759 were identified by name and deed: street gang members of the worst kind, with prior convictions for firearms, drug and violent offences.
The release of these three names, dutifully passed along to the public by the mainstream media, was designed to make us feel good, and safer. If these were the kind of thugs removed from our midst, then good riddance.
Less assuring is the fact that the press release for the other ICE operation that just took place—the one that targeted not fugitive gang members but simply immigrants who had ignored deportation orders—used the exact same feel-good tactic: Two names were plucked from among the 420 arrested in Southern California and put forward as representative of the lot. The representatives: A convicted child molester and a drug dealer.
This practice of picking the most distasteful apples to illustrate the whole barrel raises the question of just how many of the 2,909 arrestees were truly horrible people. Note that ICE described “nearly 1,500” of the 1,759 in the one sweep as “gang members, gang associates or individuals with prior criminal records,” and that 30% of the “nearly 1,500” had violent criminal histories. Described another way, ICE admits that 70% of the 1,500 had no violent criminal histories, and—since ICE considers ignoring deportation orders and repeat immigration violations to be criminal offenses—259 of the arrestees were illegal immigrants who had never before run afoul of the law.
Look closer at the Southern California fruits of the other sweep, which ICE summarized using similar language: “Of those taken into custody in this area, a total of 308 were immigration fugitives, aliens who have ignored final orders of deportation or who returned to the United States illegally after being removed. Nearly a third of the aliens arrested locally also had criminal histories in addition to being in the country illegally.”
In other words, of the 420 arrested, 112 were apparently first-time immigration violators with no criminal records, and more than two-thirds of the remaining 308 had no criminal records other than being illegal immigrants.
Yet all were tarred with the same stinking brush; all were seized at gunpoint and banished from our midst as the worst of the worst.
Asked about the fairness of identifying the worst among the arrestees as representative of the lot, ICE spokeswoman Lori Haley sees nothing at all unfair.
“They’re still in the county illegally and therefore breaking the law,” she says. “They’re still subject to arrest.”