clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The right-wing effort to paint DREAMers as a nightmare

Media is going where the president won’t: attacking DREAMers directly by calling them criminals.

Screenshot via Ed Gillespie for Governor campaign ad

President Donald Trump has called DREAMers — the nearly 2 million young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US as children — “terrific” people. He has said he wants a “bill of love” to keep recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program safe from deportation (though his administration’s actions have fallen far short of that aspiration).

The softer tone makes sense — DREAMers are a sympathetic group. They were “brought here through no fault of their own,” they’ve grown up here, and they attended US schools. The common stereotype of DREAMers is of high school valedictorians and high-achieving professionals who may not even speak the native language of their home countries.

But some conservatives, especially in right-wing media, are happy to go where the White House won’t. Conservative media outlets have found a way reframe the conversation about DREAMers, arguing that young undocumented immigrants are a criminal threat to ordinary Americans — or at least that enough of them might be dangerous that it’s not worth the risk of providing legal protections.

On a recent episode of his show, Tucker Carlson on Fox News reported on the Salvadoran-American gang MS-13. The segment lives online with the title: “MS-13 is now in 22 states, thanks to DACA.”

You can view the whole video at the link below, but be warned: it autoplays.
Screenshot via

Another story from Monday reported on an undocumented immigrant in Rochester, New York, who was arrested for making threats toward students at a local high school. The headline? “DACA recipient, 21, threatened to ‘shoot all of ya b----es’ at NY high school, police say.”

Last month, the right-leaning Washington Examiner featured this headline: “Report: Ex-DACA criminals, gang bangers go free.” And recently some studies from conservative researchers have come out to give more substance to the association these stories attempt to make — that DACA and crime are somehow connected.

What we’re seeing from the right isn’t a policy argument about DACA or legalizing DREAMers. DACA doesn’t shield immigrants who’ve committed crimes. Immigrants aren’t eligible for DACA if they’ve committed a felony or significant misdemeanor, or three misdemeanors of any kind. DACA recipients who commit crimes can be stripped of their protections and deported.

Instead, it’s an attempt to undermine the public narrative that DREAMers, as a generation of immigrants, are already contributing to American society and that they’re people Americans should be proud to call their own.

The new studies bolstering the myth of the DACA criminal

Traditionally, the association between unauthorized immigrants and crime has been logical — people who flout “the rule of law” to come to the US must not respect it generally. Or it was based on the understandable misapprehension that it’s a federal crime to live in the US without papers.

Those implications allow conservative politicians and media outlets to lift up individual crimes committed by unauthorized immigrants, and specifically DACA recipients, without saying outright that they represent deeper criminality.

When DACA was in full effect, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the hawkish chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, used to send out occasional press releases about individual immigrants with DACA getting charged with particularly serious crimes, like murder and child molestation. Ostensibly, Grassley lifted up those cases to ask the federal government why such immigrants had been approved for DACA to begin with. They also drew a connection between the “unlawfulness” of DACA itself (an “executive amnesty”) with lawlessness: a willingness to ignore or tolerate violent crime.

But anecdotes were all the hawks had to go on. Research consistently shows that immigrants commit fewer crimes than citizens do; while there’s less research specifically on unauthorized immigrants, what information there is suggests they, too, are less likely to commit crimes than their US-citizen peers.

Due to a pair of recent studies, though, the association between DACA and crime now has some data behind it — or at least, there’s data that can be framed that way.

First, in January, was a study of 33 years of Arizona jail and prison records from the conservative criminologist John Lott, who’s best known for a splashy 1997 study called “More Guns, Less Crime” that has since been pretty conclusively debunked (and for inventing an online pseudonym to defend his own work from the criticism).

Over that time, Lott found, immigrants who were “deportable” made up a disproportionate share of the people who were convicted of crimes and incarcerated, relative to their share of the Arizona population as a whole — suggesting that they might, in fact, commit crimes at higher rates than American citizens. And young deportable immigrants were the most overrepresented in Arizona’s prisons: Deportable immigrants “between 15 and 35 make up 2.27% of the total population and 7.94% of convicts,” Lott wrote.

Lott’s core thesis — that unauthorized immigrants are in fact more likely to commit crimes than other groups — is itself a little shaky. There are some questions about the reliability of the Arizona data Lott used. (A small but nonzero number of prisoners show up in the data as US-born but not US citizens, for example, which is all but impossible.)

There are much bigger questions about whether Lott is interpreting that data accurately. He says his data shows high incarceration among “illegal immigrants,” but the actual term in the records is “deportable” — a category that includes both unauthorized immigrants and legal immigrants who’ve lost their legal status, often because they’ve been convicted of certain crimes.

But when it came to drawing conclusions, Lott and others didn’t stop at the provocative but shaky thesis about unauthorized immigrants and crime. They zeroed in on the data about young unauthorized immigrants — and called them “DACA-aged illegal immigrants,” implying that DACA was offering cover to large numbers of criminals.

“If the goal of DACA is to give citizenship to a particularly law-abiding group of undocumented immigrants, it is accomplishing the opposite of what was intended,” Lott wrote.

The idea picked up steam in the conservative media, and even among some politicians: Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) garbled Lott’s study in a Facebook post, warning that “DACA-aged illegals” commit 30 percent of kidnappings in the state.

The other recent study that’s been used to bolster the link between DACA and crime, a report on MS-13 published last week by the hawkish Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), barely mentions DACA at all. The report compiles more than 500 cases in which MS-13 members have been indicted for crimes in the US, and blames lax immigration enforcement for the gang’s recent resurgence — even though it acknowledges that “a smaller percentage of MS-13 members is believed to be here illegally” than was the case during the gang’s last heyday in the mid-2000s. (At least a quarter of the MS-13 members cited in the CIS report are unauthorized immigrants; many of the others didn’t have their immigration status specified in news reports.)

But CIS doesn’t claim that those immigrants are DACA recipients. If anything, it blames the mid-2010s wave of unaccompanied alien children from Central America — and the Obama administration’s policies toward those children, which CIS sees as too lax — for reimporting MS-13 to America. Those immigrants aren’t eligible for DACA at all, since the program requires applicants to show that they’ve been in the US since 2007, years before the wave of unaccompanied children began.

CIS reports that more than 100 of the MS-13 members it found came to the US as unaccompanied children. It doesn’t even bother to say anything about how many are DACA recipients. The only specific mention of DACA in the report is of a DACA recipient (and professed MS-13 member) who claimed he was directed to take advantage of Obama’s policies to bring fellow gang members in as unaccompanied children.

But even if CIS deliberately steered clear of linking DACA with MS-13 themselves, conservative media outlets were happy to do it for them: The Tucker Carlson segment that linked MS-13 to DACA used the study as the peg and interviewed the study’s author, Jessica Vaughan.

It’s easy to avoid a tough conversation about integration and opportunity

Most people don’t know the ins and outs of immigration policy. They don’t know that DACA requires applicants to pass background checks and show documentation proving they’ve been here since 2007. They might not even know DACA requires individuals to apply at all. Nor do they know that, as a matter of policy, DACA has nothing to do with the MS-13 street gang.

That haziness about immigration is what the right is seeking to exploit. Even when Lott’s boosters acknowledge that DACA itself isn’t available to people who’ve committed crimes, they lean into the idea that no one really knows whether immigrants have committed crimes or not — turning a “don’t know” into a “can’t know.”

In National Review, Peter Kirsanow wrote that because crime in immigrant communities often goes unreported, it’s totally possible that DACA applicants could have committed crimes that wouldn’t show up on their records; the inescapable conclusion is that no background check could possibly root out the criminal element among the DREAMers.

While the Americans who are skeptical of immigration don’t draw a strong distinction between legal and unauthorized immigrants, the idea that unauthorized immigrants broke the law (or, as the term “sanctuary cities” implies, are living outside it) makes it easy for immigration hawks to connect unauthorized immigration in particular to crime. Both DACA and MS-13 appear in news stories about immigrant young people and “illegality” — so surely there’s a reason they’re both in the news at the same time, right?

This is the kind of casual lack of understanding that led, say, NPR’s Terry Gross to ask the New Yorker’s Jonathan Blitzer (one of the best US-based journalists on MS-13 and Central American immigrants), “If DACA is extended or if DACA is totally canceled, what impact would that have on MS-13?”

The answer, as Blitzer politely pointed out, is: “There is no relationship between DACA and MS-13.”

This isn’t to say that the positive stereotype of the “valedictorian DREAMer” tells the whole story, or that there aren’t social problems facing DREAMers and young immigrants (and children of immigrants). The US-born children — the “second generation” — of immigrants (specifically black and Latino immigrants) are often less educated and earn less money than their parents. They’re more likely to be single parents or have kids young, and they are, in fact, more likely to commit crimes.

Sociologists call it “negative assimilation.” And there’s reason to worry about it; the National Academy of Sciences, in its sweeping 2015 study of immigrants in the US, identified negative assimilation as one of the biggest concerns for the long-term well-being of both immigrants and their descendants and America more broadly.

We don’t know what “causes” negative assimilation (and there almost certainly is more than one cause), and whether it says something about immigrants, America, or both.

But having a conversation about all this not only means accepting that the people already living here will stay here — it also means that America ought to care about them. From the perspective of immigration hawks, that’s exactly backward. Instead of believing that spending a certain amount of time in America makes a foreigner American, they’re concerned about the opposite: that parts of America have been inhabited by unaccountable foreigners and opaque to law enforcement for so long that they’ve become foreign enclaves on American soil.

That’s a fear that has long animated the right when it comes to immigration, and it is a fear that conservative media is all too eager to inflame.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.