Episode 13: (Mis)State(ment) of the Union

Trump's State of the Union address repeated his false claims that link crime with immigration. Tanvi Misra helps set the record straight, and Alex Aleinikoff discusses Trump's nativist assault on the moral fabric of the US.


Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.

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For the Last Time, Here’s the Real Link Between Immigration and Crime: In the State of the Union, President Trump again argued for a border wall by suggesting that immigration leads to higher crime. Research suggests otherwise.

Transcript of President’s State of the Union address, delivered on Tuesday, February 5th, 2019.


Alex Aleinikoff:  This is Tempest Tossed: Conversations on Migration and Mobility, and I'm Alex Aleinikoff.

Tanvi Misra: Ascribing criminality to an entire group of people is what is happening here and I think there's just no evidence to support that that is true.

Alex Aleinikoff:  In President Trump's State of the Union address the section on immigration was the longest and the most divisive. As has become common for this president, he almost seemed to take pleasure in describing lurid details of crimes committed by, in his words, “illegal aliens.” These horrific but isolated crimes provide, according to Trump, adequate justification for the wall and in attempting to make his case, he made a number of claims. Some were incendiary. Some were factually challenged. And all playing into what is now a familiar presidential narrative.

In this episode, I want to first see some fact checking of the claims Trump made in the State of the Union speech, and then I want to talk about the broader context and impact of Trump's rhetoric.  To get to the facts, I spoke with Tanvi Misra, a staff writer for The Atlantic’s City Lab, who wrote a terrific piece on the State of the Union address. Now up on the City Lab website, the piece is entitled “For the Last Time, Here's the Real Link Between Immigration and Crime.”

What I'd like to do today, Tanvi, is go through a number of the president's statements in the state of the Union, and then to ask you to fact check them with us. Let's start here:

President Trump: The lawless state of our southern border is a threat to the safety security and financial well-being of all America... Tonight I am asking you to defend our very dangerous southern border.

Alex Aleinikoff: Your reaction?

Tanvi Misra: Yeah. So, you know, this has been a pretty consistent theme, I think, that we've seen him bring up even before he became president, right? This idea of all these immigrants coming across the border, sort of storming the walls, you know, and then causing crime, taking jobs. I guess there's two things that I'd like to mention here: one thing is this idea of inundation by these people. It's an incredibly effective way to spread fear. The second is why would that be something that causes fear. And that's because all the underlying assumptions that we have about the people who are coming to the border. And that is that these are people who cause crime, immigration is the reason we're seeing a rise in crime. And that's not true, but that seems to be a really, again, a very effective selling point for some of his policies.

Alex Aleinikoff: So, what do you make of the claim in the Trump statement about the lawless state of our southern border? You've studied this issue: is our southern border lawless?

Tanvi Misra: So, I think this is another really great sleight of hand, right, this idea of stigmatizing an entire geography of people. Cities like El Paso are incredibly safe compared to other cities of the same sort of size and other comparable cities. And we also know that crime actually decreased in these cities before the border fencing went up there.

Alex Aleinikoff:  OK. And here's another claim of Trump's, and this one focuses on what he calls, occasionally, the humanitarian, as well as the security crisis, on the southwest border. So this is what Trump said:

President Trump: One in three women is sexually assaulted on the long journey north. Smugglers use migrant children as human pawns to exploit our laws and gain access to our country.

Alex Aleinikoff: Is there any evidence of this?

Tanvi Misra:  So there is evidence that women who make these journeys experience incredible trauma, including sexual assault. So, I would say that's that's correct. The second bit of this, regarding human traffickers and sex traffickers, this is a really interesting question. So, one of the things that advocates have repeatedly brought up is that if this administration is so concerned about human traffickers and sex traffickers, that they should actually give out the visas that help victims of those crimes stay in the country. And increasingly the visas, these are T visas that are specifically for victims of sex and human trafficking, those have been doled out at a less frequent rate. There are  just fewer visas that are going out. The second point is that a lot of people criticize this kind of rhetoric, because they see that it's actually the policies that make it difficult for asylum seekers vulnerable asylum seekers, right, the women we mentioned before, the kids that they are coming with, to come to ports of entries and seek asylum as is legally their right. And because of that they actually become more vulnerable to traffickers who might take advantage, of you know, their circumstances.

Alex Aleinikoff:  Tanvi, I'd like to get to the heart of what you wrote about in your article, which are Trump's claims about to criminal immigrants. Here's what he had to say.

President Trump: Year after year countless Americans are murdered by criminal, illegal Aliens. I've gotten to know many wonderful Angel moms and dads and families. No one should ever have to suffer the horrible heartache that they have had to endure.

Alex Aleinikoff: Tanvi, does Trump have a point here?

Tanvi Misra:  No one should have to go through having any kind of crime against a member of their family, right. Especially if it's a violent crime. No one should go through something like that.

But I think ascribing criminality to an entire group of people is what is happening here, and I think there is just no, there's just no evidence to support that that is true.Of course there are some immigrants who commit crime right. There are some members of any group that commit crime. That said, study after study has shown that there is no link between immigration and crime. In fact, a lot of researchers have actually observed the opposite relationship, which is that once immigrants come into a neighborhood usually crime goes down. I reviewed a lot of studies for this piece, and a few of them actually go really comprehensively into unauthorized immigration and none of them found any significant increases in crime in places where unauthorized immigrants have made up a big part of the population. So, I just, I think the overwhelming evidence just does not support this claim, and it has never supported this claim.

Alex Aleinikoff: So, Tanvi has shared with us important data-based responses to Trump's frequent false assertions about the relationship of crime and immigration. Trump has also made claims about crimes in border cities. Here's what he said in the state of the Union about the city of El Paso, and then followed by a response from Beto O'Rourke, former congressman from the city of El Paso,

President Trump: The border city of El Paso Texas used to have extremely high rates of violent crime, one of the highest in the entire country, and considered one of our nation's most dangerous cities. Now, immediately upon its building, with a powerful barrier in place, El Paso is one of the safest cities in our country. Simply put walls work and walls save lives.

Alex Aleinikoff: And here is Beto O'Rourke's response to Trump's claim:

Beto O’Rouke: As many people now know, El Paso has been a safe city, one of the safest in the U.S. for the last 20 years. Prior to having a wall, and post having a wall. In fact, a little less safe after we had a wall and we're not an outlier: Macallan is safe, San Diego is safe. The border cities are safer than the average city in the interior.

Alex Aleinikoff:  So the evidence seems pretty clear here, as Tanvi Misra and Beto O’Rourke have reiterated, immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than native born citizens. Border cities are among the safest in the United States. Residents of border cities don't feel overwhelmed by crime. And of course, it's true that some immigrants do commit crimes as do members of all population groups in the United States. Lawyers commit crimes, plumbers commit crimes. Teachers and priests commit crimes. There is a serious issue of crime at the border but it's not crimes committed by undocumented migrants. It's crimes committed against migrants, specifically women migrants who suffer sexual violence during their travel to the United States. This is one of the reasons that the caravans form, for protection against predators and traffickers. It's also the reason to be deeply concerned about the Trump administration's remain in Mexico policy, that tells asylum seekers to wait at the border in Mexico to ask for refuge in the United States.

Now, nothing I'm saying here is particularly controversial and you've probably heard it before. And yet, we have a president who repeats time and again that immigrants are criminals, that they are flooding our borders and bringing murder, and rape, and drugs with them. And his devoted followers at rallies continue to say build the wall. Or now I guess finish the wall.

This is utterly shameful behavior from the president of the United States. There are ways of talking about the problem of unauthorized migration to the United States but this is not it not when it leads to stigmatization, to fear mongering, to hate crimes. And let's be clear: the identification of crime with undocumented migration has a very specific target. It is not about all immigrants in the United States in violation of law. In fact, Trump never seems to talk about the largest component of undocumented migration in recent years, this is the number of people who enter on temporary visas: work visas, student visas, visitor visas, and then stay beyond their authorized time. There's a recent study by the Center of Migration Studies, that shows that for the past seven years, these so-called visa overstayers have significantly exceeded the number of illegal border crossers. Let me say that again: for the past seven years, the number of people who have illegally overstayed their visas in the United States, has been larger than the number of people who have entered the country without documents. And one of the countries with the largest number of visa overstayers?  According to a recent report at the Department of Homeland Security: it's Canada.

But Trump's rhetoric from the beginning of his campaign has been about illegal border crossers, from Mexico and Central America. This means that for Trump criminal aliens have a race, and a language, and a mode of entry. They are brown, they are Spanish speaking, and they cross the border illegally. And that picture has now morphed into an even more troubling construction. Not only are criminal aliens brown and Spanish speaking, but now all brown and Spanish speaking immigrants are criminals.

So, the attack on criminal aliens begins to look a lot like the attack on Muslim immigrants that led Trump to impose his Muslim travel ban. An entire group is labeled, it's stigmatized by the president, producing harsh and then wildly overbroad policies. What I'm saying here, is that there's a lot in common with labeling the situation at the border an emergency and shutting down legal immigration from predominantly Muslim countries. And what one could add to that the president's identification of certain countries as “shithole countries” from which immigration should be discouraged.

This is how racism works, how nativism works, and it's having a devastating impact on populations in the United States, and the moral fabric of this nation. You know, I can remember seeing signs held up by protesters, rallying against Trump's Muslim ban at airports, and the sign said: “No ban, no wall.” They were entirely right to see these policies as linked by a nativism that has been unleashed, promoted by the president of the United States.

In the end this is what the fight over the wall is really about. No one is in favor of undocumented migration. The opponents of the wall are not in favor of open borders, but they understand the wall for what it is. It's not about border security which can be better accomplished in other ways. The wall is something more insidious than any physical manifestation it might take it. It's a metaphor, a symbolic representation of white nationalism. So, what I'm saying is that the wall is intended to do more work in the American mind than at the American border. This is what Nancy Pelosi means when she calls the wall immoral, and this is why Trump's state of the Union address and declaration of emergency at the border are so deeply, deeply disturbing.

Alex Aleinikoff: You've been listening to Tempest Tossed, a production of the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility at the New School. Our engineer is Sahil Ansari. At dot  112. And theme music composed by Eli Aleinikoff. We would welcome your comments and suggestions for future episodes, and you can reach us by emailing us at tossedtempest@gmail.com. That's tossedtempest, all one word, at gmail.com.