Let’s begin by stipulating two things. First, so long as there is an immigration debate, there will be racists and political opportunists who latch on to isolated events to make broad, sweeping judgments to score political points and to increase ethnic tensions in the United States. Second, any given family’s response to tragedy will be as varied and diverse as American families are varied and diverse. There is no playbook for grieving.
At the same time, however, there are reasons why illegal-immigrant crime can carry a poignant punch among people of good will.
The murder of Mollie Tibbetts or Kate Steinle can be particularly hard to take because of a simple, anguished declaration. The murderer wasn’t supposed to be here. I’m reminded of the pain that people feel when, for example, they find out (in different crimes) that the police didn’t follow up on a lead or a prisoner was wrongly released on parole. The feeling is palpable.
This person wasn’t supposed to be on the streets.
In the immigration context, that pain is magnified because Americans know that for years immigration enforcement has been lax. Sanctuary-city policies seem designed to draw unlawful immigrants. Even the very idea of stricter border enforcement is deemed racist by some. While no border can be perfectly guarded, we can do better. We simply choose not to.
Do you want more immigration? Let’s have that debate. Let’s decide the number of people we want in the country, and let’s make sure — as much as we can — that this number does not include people with known criminal histories. Americans know that no population is perfect. We know that a certain number of legal immigrants will commit crimes, just as a certain number of native-born Americans will commit crimes. But there is a difference between doing due diligence and no diligence at all.
In fact, while it’s difficult to get precise data on the extent or rate of illegal-immigrant crime in this country, information from even the most illegal-immigrant-friendly sources shows that legal immigrants commit homicide at lower rates than illegal immigrants. Screening makes a difference.
To an extent, Americans have “priced in” the existence of crime in this country. We know some neighborhoods are more violent than others. We know some behaviors are more risky than others. But we also know that there’s no way to live an entirely risk-free life. Crime will happen.
But there are things that blow our risk calculus. There are things that can focus anger not just at the criminal who committed the crime but at larger failures that needlessly amplified the danger. Americans are completely justified in their anger when, say, the background-check system fails and a known criminal or mentally unfit person purchases a gun. That amplifies the pain and injustice of the shooting.
Americans are justified in their anger when officials ignore warning signs or when people in authority turn away from domestic violence and a troubled person kills. The official failure magnifies the personal injustice.
So they are also justified in their anger when officials make the choice not to effectively enforce existing law. They are justified in their anger when officials make the affirmative decision to do all they can to frustrate or defy existing law. They are further justified in their anger when the very plea to just enforce the laws passed by Congress and signed by the president is deemed to be nothing more than the hateful, desperate cry of a fading white majority.
Again, none of this means that any given family will agree with this sentiment. There are indications that members of Mollie Tibbetts’s family don’t want her name in the national political conversation. We’ve seen grieving families take opposite sides of virtually every contentious issue surrounding crime and punishment. But it’s a profound mistake to listen to the grieving voices that reinforce your worldview and ignore the others — or to believe that the elevation of opposing voices is necessarily driven by bad faith.
Porous borders have consequences, and one of those consequences is that a certain number of criminals will enter this country and do terrible things to its citizens. It is not racist or oppressive simply to ask that our government faithfully execute the laws of the land. Otherwise, there is no good answer to the next anguished family that asks a simple, heartrending question about the man who killed their child.
Why was he here?
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