Politics

The Immigration Debate Still Has a Willie Horton Problem

Even after Trump, graphic examples are being used to justify a vast deportation machine.

Side view of Mayorkas seated speaking at a table
Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing in Washington on May 13. Graeme Jennings/Pool/Getty Images

In a recent interview at an event hosted by UCLA, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas responded to a series of questions about U.S. immigration policy by citing a graphic example. Outlining his views on immigration detention, Mayorkas described the case of a man who had entered the U.S. unlawfully as an adult and was jailed three times for sex offenses, including the rape of a child, before being detained on civil immigration violations. “I will not release that individual pending removal proceedings,” Mayorkas explained, describing immigration detention as a tool to protect the public. He returned to the graphic example when asked about Secure Communities, a controversial fingerprint-sharing program that has resulted in the deportation of hundreds of thousands of people of color following local interactions with police. “I think the state … should turn that individual [with multiple sex offenses] over to ICE directly,” he explained, defending the program.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

The interviewer, UCLA professor Ahilan Arulanantham, pressed Mayorkas on the wisdom of crafting a national immigration policy around this singular example. “You take Willie Horton, and you end up with mass incarceration,” Arulanantham said, referring to the infamous 1988 presidential political ad campaign featuring a Black man who was convicted of committing a heinous murder while on a weekend furlough from prison.* The Willie Horton ad was the ultimate racist dog whistle: a thinly coded narrative about law-and-order politics that played up racist fears, specifically of Black men, and made meaningful criminal law reform politically unpalatable. The same risk arises when these narratives drive immigration policy.

Under the Trump administration, public awareness and criticism of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement grew, leading to demands to cut the agency’s bloated $8.4 billion budget. When the Biden administration attempted to pause deportations, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued, claiming that the policy would endanger Texas residents. ICE quickly issued new interim guidance expanding “public safety” priorities for immigration enforcement based on past criminal conduct and giving local ICE offices wide authority to decide who should be deemed a threat. Touting ICE’s public safety mission and increasing arrests under the interim guidance, federal immigration officials have indicated that the Biden administration intends to keep ICE’s budget largely intact.

Advertisement
Advertisement

It’s not the first time that fearmongering about crime has shaped the immigration debate. In my book, No Justice in the Shadows: How America Criminalizes Immigrants, I trace the history of how immigration restrictionists have used narratives of criminality to justify the growth of a vast deportation machinery. In the 1800s, politicians routinely labeled Chinese immigrants as fraudsters, thieves, and prostitutes, seeking to justify the enactment of Chinese exclusion laws. The same animus spurred criminal liability. Local legislators began criminalizing substances like opium during this same period in part due to fears of racial mixing. It became a cycle: Immigration status justifies criminalization, and criminal status justifies deportation.

The cycle continues, with plenty of Willie Horton moments fueling racist and anti-immigrant policies in the last administration. During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump labeled Jose Inez Garcia Zarate an “animal” for the 2015 shooting of Kathryn Steinle. Even after Garcia Zarate was acquitted of murder, Trump continued to use the example to rail against local “sanctuary” policies. As president, Trump created an entire office (which Biden is apparently keeping) dedicated to assisting victims of “criminal aliens.” Trump’s senior adviser Stephen Miller mined the news looking for examples of crimes committed by immigrants.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Trump even ran his own Wille Horton–style ad during the 2018 midterm elections, featuring a Mexican man who reentered the U.S. unlawfully and killed two California deputies, stating that “Democrats let him in.” And during the 2020 presidential election, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement plastered billboards across Pennsylvania, a key swing state, with mugshots of men who were “wanted by ICE” after being released from criminal custody.

Trump knew that these examples reinforce a powerful message. As journalist Dara Lind described Trump’s favorite trope: “Immigrants are coming over the border to kill you.” It does not matter that study after study has debunked the myth that immigration increases crime. Words matter. Trump called immigrants “invaders” so many times that language was reportedly used by U.S. citizen Robert Gregory Bowers before he shot and killed 11 people in the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in 2018, and by U.S. citizen Patrick Wood Crusius, the person suspected of killing 23 people in an El Paso, Texas, Walmart in 2019.

Advertisement

The same words that inspire hate also inspire policy. Racist dog whistles are part of the reason the U.S. has built the world’s largest immigration detention system, which disproportionately locks up Black and Latinx people for civil immigration violations. These racial disparities are due in large part to immigration officials’ reliance on the criminal legal system to feed people into the deportation machine. Black immigrants, for example, are 7.4 percent of the noncitizen population but 20 percent of those facing deportation on criminal grounds.

Advertisement

The reality is that Willie Horton–style examples don’t justify the policies they inspire. To hear sexual abuse cited as a reason to maintain the immigration detention system is particularly painful. Thousands of immigrants—adults and children—have reported sexual abuse in immigration detention. Advocates have sounded the alarm on facilitywide abuse and have raised concerns for more than a decade. And it’s not the only problem with immigration detention: Preventable death, medical abuse, and retaliation are endemic to the system. The situation has only become more dire during the pandemic, as outbreaks have spread rapidly through immigration jails. Advocates have long pointed to alternatives. If the U.S. government is committed to stopping abuse, immigration detention isn’t a solution.

Advertisement

Deportation itself also causes harm, not only to the individual deported but to families and communities left behind. When deportations are based on past criminal conduct, little room is made to consider a person’s rehabilitation and ties to their community. Deportation becomes a cruel double punishment that amplifies the disparities of the criminal legal system, targeting those who have already completed their sentences and seek only to rebuild their lives.

Nor is the deportation of someone who is repeatedly engaged in violence a meaningful solution to violence. It does not stop harm, but displaces it, with no accountability for those who may experience harm in the future. The U.S. has already failed to live up to its obligations to protect individuals fleeing from sexual violence—a problem that the Biden administration has recognized but not yet fixed. The U.S. is still turning back the majority of asylum-seekers seeking safe haven. If the U.S. government wants to prevent violence, it has to address violence on its own terms and stop treating deportation as a public safety tool.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

The Biden administration can shift gears. Its recent closure of two immigration jails is a start. But if its interim immigration enforcement guidance and budget proposals are any indication of its long-term approach to immigration enforcement, a more fundamental shift is necessary. The interim enforcement guidance allows sweeping labels of criminality to justify detention and deportation. The Biden administration would come much closer to the goal of ending systemic racism in the immigration system by dropping these labels and breaking the arrest-to-deportation pipeline. It must dismantle Secure Communities and similar dragnets that deepen the racial disparities of deportation, and end the agency’s archaic reliance on detention. It also must cut ICE’s budget and reallocate those resources to supporting communities of color that have been doubly targeted by the immigration and criminal legal systems.

As Mayorkas stated in his interview, federal immigration officials must “not perpetuate the injustices … in the criminal justice system.” Rather than highlighting graphic stories that play into the hands of immigration restrictionists, the Biden administration should celebrate the humanity and dignity of all immigrants.

Correction, May 26, 2021: This piece originally misspelled Ahilan Arulanantham’s last name.

Advertisement