Criminalizing Immigration

Jack Stephens, Librarian, Science, Technology & Patents Department,
Sanctuary Cities Map

President Donald J. Trump’s January 25, 2017 executive action threatening the withholding of federal funds to sanctuary cities, counties and states has raised again, perhaps as never before, the issue of local law enforcement involvement in immigration enforcement in the United States. The City of Los Angeles and the other roughly 400 jurisdictions across the country with some sort of sanctuary policy have now begun to consider how to respond.

Harvard University sociologist Mary C. Waters points out, in the Fall 2016 issue of the journal Issues in Science and Technology (“Crime and Immigration: New Forms of Exclusion and Discrimination”), that local police involvement in immigration enforcement in the United States is only about 20 years old: 

Prior to 1996, someone caught trying to sneak across the border would simply be returned to the other side. The process was called voluntary departure and there was no criminal charge. If one was caught inside the country, judges had discretion about what to do. The chances of being caught in the country were very low, and in 1990 there were only about 30,000 deportations. 


After 1996, the government introduced a series of laws that effectively integrated the local criminal justice system with immigration enforcement. Now what happens is that whenever local police make an arrest—or for some other reason collect someone’s fingerprints or name or ID—that information is sent to the interstate identification index maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). If the person is found to be undocumented, Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) will issue a two-day hold and then commence deportation proceedings.

The central thesis of Prof. Waters’ article is that this recent criminalization of immigration that she shows targets mostly Latinos is a form of social exclusion, and that this is analogous to the denial of certain rights for ex-felons, which disproportionately affects African Americans: "[B]oth ex-felons and undocumented immigrants are defined out of civil society. They are defined as not eligible for the same rights as everyone else." She writes that, “Scholars have dubbed this intersection between crime and immigration as ‘crimmigration.’” 

Although Prof. Waters does not specify the two laws she refers to in the passage above, according to Human Rights Watch ("US: 20 Years of Immigrant Abuses"), they are the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), both of 1996.

In sum, if the involvement of local law enforcement in immigration enforcement in the United States is only 20 years old, then it is in truth a historical aberration in American law and social policy, and the Trump administration's threats against state, county and city jurisdictions across the country with sanctuary policies appears as an attempt to defend what is in actuality a relatively recent policy.

Recent books in the Los Angeles Public Library’s collection on immigration enforcement in the United States as it affects Latinos include:

Prof. Mary C. Waters has co-edited several books in the Los Angeles Public Library’s collections on these subjects: