The Criminal Cost of Being Different: The Lasting Effects of the Trump Administration on Crimmigration

Photo by Saad Chaudhry via Unsplash

Introducing an Anti-Immigrant World

For many, November 8th 2016 was a night flooded with unprecedented fear. President-elect Donald J. Trump had just been elected after one of the most chaotic and stress-inducing elections in United States history. Though Trump did win the election, a large part of America (and much of the western world) found Trump’s whole campaign--limiting healthcare access, policies destructive to women’s rights and minority rights, tearing down relations and multilateral agreements with foreign powers, etc. to be a massive leap backwards. Trump’s most controversial campaign promise was arguably his stance towards the development of a wall hovering over the border between Mexico and the United States--a wall which would apparently be paid by the neighboring country itself.

“They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some I assume are good people.” This is just one of the many infamous and nonsensical quotes Trump spouted about Mexican immigrants during his campaign. As a Mexican-American whose own family had immigrated from Mexico, it was degrading to hear an old white man spout nonsense about my culture and people.

Trump’s campaign and presidency was infamous for its stance on immigration. While he did seek to halt immigration as a whole, Trump specifically targeted those coming from Mexico. His campaign constantly boasted about its border wall, while labelling any and all Mexican immigrants as freeloaders, criminals, and rapists. There were several justifications to restrict and deport any immigrants, including excuses that immigrants were national security risks, could take over America’s workplace, and would introduce cultures and ideas that would pollute and undermine the “American Dream.”

Simply put, being an immigrant was analogous to being placed onto the FBI’s Most Wanted list. If you were not a natural-born citizen (let alone a white one), you were already labelled as a criminal. A sense of unbelonging is undoubtedly created when neverending hate flows from politicians and everyday people, which continuously shapes racist and hurtful stereotypes that label one as a criminal for simply existing. Unfortunately (yet unsurprising), this ideology did not originate from the Trump-era. Classifying immigrants as threats to the welfare of the American state has long been ingrained in our country’s history for centuries.

Crimmigration’s Origins

“Crimmigration,” a term coined by legal scholar Juliet Stumpf, is used to describe the intersection between the United States criminal and immigration systems. Before the 1980s, these were two separate systems with their own rules and procedures. However, these two systems would slowly begin to intersect, undoubtedly because Americans feared strangers entering their country. America attempted to justify it’s fears in various ways: drug activites were expanding, crime was becoming more prominent, and increasing acts of terrorism (such as the September 11th attacks in New York) were more than enough to show our nation’s livelihood was under attack. Who else was there to blame but the increasing wave of immigrants of color flooding our cities? As a result, there became a growing list of convictions of immigrants that would result in removal, alongside drastic changes in levels of enforcement and imprisonment (similar to those found within the criminal law system), and managing immigration activity as if it were a threat to national security.

However, animosity towards noncitizens is nothing new for the United States, spanning as far back as the colonial era. Colonial-America’s slave trade was notoriously expansive, pulling African and indigenous people from their homes for the benefit of colonial settlers. Slaves were considered “less” than white Americans, creating a hostile dynamic that continues today. While not nearly as atrocious, noncitizens from European nations were also met with distaste, to the point that Congress issued a statute barring foriegn convicts from entering the colonies. Fast forward a century later, and America’s animosity to noncitizens has not diminished. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was arguably the United States’ largest restriction of immigration at the time of its creation. American employers began to prefer Chinese immigrants over citizens for the former's cheap labor, leading Congress to completely restrict immigration from China.

The “criminal immigrant” stigma reignited in the 1980s, where criminal and immigration law began to converge due to growing fears that incoming immigrants were risks to national safety. In particular, migrant Cubans and Haitians began to enter the country to the dismass of the American public, with worries that they were spreading Marxist ideologies and illicility contributing to increased drug activity in the country. Congress was especially willing to push similar forms of legislation, including the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act and the 1990 Immigration Act, reasoning that these were defensive initiatives against the emerging war on drugs. This is the era where “modern crimmigration” was born from, namingly due to the large-scale immigration policing trends that followed, and was undoubtedly the first step towards the creation of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The Guard Dog of America’s Borders: ICE

ICE is a federal law enforcement division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that was created in 2002 with the promoted purpose to “detecting and dismantling transnational criminal networks that target the American people and threaten our industries, organizations and financial systems.” However, most are familiar with ICE because of its infamous methods of harsh policing and inhumane imprisonment of immigrants. ICE is considered the first line of defense in the fight against foreign criminals; a fight that truthfully has become overblown.

The majority of detainees held captive in ICE’s detention centers lack any sort of criminal history, and are often asylum seekers hoping to escape persecution and find a better life in the United States. What they have done in the past is irrelevant; their only crime is being foreign. Outside of their enforcement practices, ICE has contributed to the labelling of immigrants in a variety of ways. Hostility towards immigrants was exacerbated under ICE’s philosophy. With everyday individuals adopting this criminalizing ideology of hatred, immigrants begin to become increasingly susceptible to mental health issues. Many are fearful to work, hesitant to access public healthcare, and live through constant distress at the possibility of being discovered and whisked away. Because of ICE’s insistence towards splitting children from their families, fears of separation begin to become rampant into the minds of young children. ICE’s creation was undoubtedly one of the most devastatingly effective influences towards nationwide immigrant fear and distaste. However, as many are now aware, the snowball of hatred began to roll at record breaking speeds once Trump was elected into office.

An Era of Hatred: The Trump Administration

When the Trump administration took office in 2016, they spared no second in their attempts to “Make America Great Again.” Apart from a spew of legislative acts, Trump further exacerbated the existing ideology against immigrants, transforming an already large-scale form of hostility into something much more. Despite the infamous border wall never truly being constructed in the way Trump has promoted (nor was it paid for by Mexico), the racial messages and implications behind the project spread like wildfire. The “Make America Great Again” slogan became increasingly infamous throughout his term, with many supporters unifying beneath this mantra. A large majority (if not all) of these followers echoed Trump's opinion of Mexican immigrants: that they were nothing more than thieves, rapists, and criminals. A familiar stigma towards unnatural citizens began to reignite, arguably with a flame like any other. Using their hatred towards unknown persons (particularly Latinx, immigrant or not), Trump and his supporters justified their mission to quell the national threats these foriegn “criminals” supposedly brought.

Of course, Trump did not just apply a new coat of paint to the already existing hateful mindset towards foreigners. As implied above, the president issued numerous legislative procedures targeting immigrants, in an attempt to “reform” how our borders functioned. This was undoubtedly just a means to express his (and his administrations) bigotry. Trump kept his campaign promises of enforcing administrative and legislative mandates that targeted foriegn “criminals.”

Incredibly early into his presidency, Trump worked with the Department of Justice to increase and devote resources towards immigrant arrests and prosecutions. The percentage of criminal deportations rose to unprecedented levels, with over 68,000 criminal prosecutions in 2016 (the most serious charges in these cases usually being an immigrant related one). To put this number in perspective, the all-time high for detainees (not arrests) was only around 28,000 in 2011, not even coming close to the prosecution numbers first seen in the Trump era. The rising number of criminal prosecutions was not necessarily because there were more felony-level criminals entering and being charged in the United States, but because of the Trump administration's push to get any immigrant deported, regardless of the severity of their crime.

As one would expect, ICE’s practices and policies also became increasingly harsher than they had under previous administrations. Just as Trump pushed for the prioritization of prosecutorial deportations, he also encouraged ICE to increase the number of arrests across the US-Mexico border. In only the first eight months of his presidency, ICE arrests saw a substantial increase of 42% of deportations compared to previous statistics. ICE took no issue with the opportunity to further exert their authority; as described by the acting director of ICE during Trump’s election, the president was “taking the handcuffs off” the agency.

Crimmigration becomes relevant here as the similarities and differences between modern immigration and imprisonment detention policies are even more apparent. A prime example of this disparity would be the lack of procedural protections and necessary criminal assessments that are required under standard criminal law. Because immigrant imprisonment is not deemed punishment in the same way as criminal detention, protections that prisoners would normally receive in the criminal detention system (such as due process rights, adequate access to counsel, prolonged custody, etc) are absent for immigrant detainees.

Additionally, immigrant prisoners filled ICE’s detention centers to an inhumane level of capacity, justifying their practices with the stance of preventing “criminals'' from entering American soil. Despite the practice of overfilling their cells, ICE actually puts effort towards separating immigrant families from one another with the justification of “deterring” future migrants. Much of America watched in horror as reports of family separation came to light due to ICE’s new predatory and monstrous policies. Many families have yet to be reunited.

Another consequence of these policies is the actual cost of these policies. Imprisoning immigrants requires an incredible amount of money for the federal government; a cost that only increased thanks to rising amounts of arrests. No matter how one attempts to frame Trump’s motivations and actions towards the “war on immigration,” it has to be acknowledged that his stance has actually caused America more issues than it had before his presidency.

Immigration Policy Today: The Biden Administration

As of January 2021, Trump's presidency has ended. Replacing him is Joe Biden, former vice president of the United States during Barack Obama’s terms from 2008-2016. Biden’s campaign was seen as the beginning of a new and better world in terms of immigration policies: it recognized Trump’s predatorial form of enforcement, the separation of families, and misguided policies that spoke more from the heart of a racist than of a president. In an attempt to fix the atrocities committed by Trump’s policies, Biden condemned the overcriminalization of immigrants, recognizing that convicting and deporting individuals with little to no criminal history was a wasteful and dehumanizing policy. His administration also promised to hold ICE more accountable, demanding further transparency and training that would theoretically improve the situation around its detention centers. In this aspect alone, Biden’s campaign had shown much more kindness and open mindedness to immigrants than Trump’s ever did, and undoubtedly moved in the right direction.

However, we are closing in on it being a full year since Biden’s inauguration. Has he actually put into action what his campaign promised? The answer is mixed. So far, Biden’s policies have been more progressive than his predecessor. For example, Biden has already made progress in limiting ICE’s power in deportations, specifically ordering that immigrants may not be deported solely because they are undocumented. However, in the grand scheme of things, little has actually been accomplished. Despite attempts to limit ICE’s deportation powers, border apprehensions and detention numbers by the enforcement agency have actually been increasing. Kamala Harris, Biden’s vice-president, has made infamous declarations to immigrants that they should “not come” here, otherwise America’s “laws will be enforced.” Perhaps these lackluster results are only considered as such because of what Trump had left behind. Regardless, the Biden administration leaves more to be desired in its current progress regarding crimmigration.

A Call for Awareness

Despite its ingrained history, crimmigration is still a topic that many are unfamiliar with. I was frankly surprised with the reactions of my friends and colleagues when describing this topic and my research for this piece. However, the pervasive mistrust that creates crimmigration is one worth worrying about, regardless of the concept's anonymity. Crimmigration has serious consequences on the lives of millions who live in our country. The fear of immigrants has drastically increased under the Trump administration, and while Biden’s presidency has undoubtedly taken steps in the right direction to dismantle these fears, it is simply not enough. The remnants of Trump’s presidency are almost stapled into our society today, and will require immense work from the Biden administration to remove.

America is privileged to stay in a luxurious home built and maintained by immigrants. Meanwhile, those same immigrants are forced to remain outdoors in chains, labelled as criminals for no other reason than where they’ve come from. Until more people realize this inhumane and blameless criminalization, nothing can change.