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The many ways a porous border means crime without boundaries

By James Varney & Abigail Degnan
Real Clear Wire

When President Biden’s supporters attacked him for describing the man who allegedly murdered Georgia co-ed Laken Reilly as an “illegal,” they shined a light on one of the most contested words in American politics.

The progressive push to describe border crossers as undocumented or unauthorized can also serve to downplay and obscure the massive issue of crime perpetrated and spawned by the influx of millions of migrants since Biden was elected – often in ways that leave the migrants themselves as victims.

While migrant advocates argue that illegal arrivals commit crimes at lower rates than Americans, the claim is unverifiable because the federal government and most states do not break down crimes by immigration status.

Criminologists also note that it ignores the vast web of statutory crimes concurrent with illegal immigration – drug smuggling, human trafficking, child labor violations, prostitution, the black market in employment, and so on.

What remains undeniable by the law of averages is that the massive surge in immigration since the Biden administration relaxed border policies – a surge that it puts at more than 4 million people, but other sources millions more – has been accompanied by much more crime, however unquantifiable.

Millions of migrants, though not all, run afoul of laws by their situation more than by overtly malign criminal intent. But their first step across the border is a lawbreaking one, and it is often followed by life on the law’s margins: living in the U.S. without insurance or proper work papers, providing illicit labor for unscrupulous or blasé employers, turning to black markets for counterfeit Social Security cards, and often becoming targets for robbers or extortionists. Their desire to come to America creates a vast pool of criminality involving them or those illegally profiting from them.

“On some criminal matters, like homicides, we’ve got a good sense of the scale there whether we solve them all or not,” said Alex Nowrasteh, a vice president at the Cato Institute who studies the economic impact of immigration. “But some of this other stuff is like all black markets in that it is opaque behavior. We don’t know how much crime there might be and in a sense I think it’s sort of unknowable.”

An outer layer of this criminal onion is the so-called “coyotes” who smuggle migrants to the southern border. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which is sympathetic to the plight of refugees, paints a brutally stark picture of the  exploitive lawbreakers who lurk behind the caravans and trucks and trains heading north.

“Some criminal groups view migrants as simply one of many commodities to be smuggled, alongside drugs and firearms,” it noted in a 2018 report. “Since the smuggling of migrants is a highly profitable illicit activity with a relatively low risk of detection, it is attractive to criminals.”

The United Nations also acknowledges the near impossibility of quantifying these criminal enterprises. “Assessing the real size of this crime is a complex matter, owing to its underground nature and the difficulty of identifying when irregular migration is being facilitated by smugglers,” it said.

In order to pay back these smugglers or the people willing to “host” them in the U.S., many migrants – no one knows how many – are often dragooned into illicit behavior.

"Even people who may come here with no criminal intent at all may find themselves involved in some sort of criminal activity because the cartels that control the immigration channels are going to get their money one way or another,” said Ira Mehlman, media director for the Federation of American Immigration Reform, which seeks policies to seal the border from illegal penetrations. “Going to work for the cartels is one way they can pay off their debts. Others may find themselves pressed into indentured servitude or, even worse, being trafficked in the sex trades.”

Although they gets little attention in the United States, the crimes associated with migration begin south of the border. Since Joe Biden sent a clear signal while running for president that he would welcome mass immigration, tens of thousands of people along the Central American isthmus have been inspired to migrate and have become victims too. Vulnerable and poor people making the more than 2,000-mile trek from the Darién Gap in Panama to the Texas border have been preyed upon physically and economically, contributing to the enormous human cost.

“As millions of people have put themselves needlessly in the hands of cartels and smugglers to make the journey to the Southwest border, an untold number have suffered violence, degradation, and abuse at the hands of these ruthless organizations, while countless others have perished or simply been left to die in the jungles and deserts along the way,” according to the majority report from the House Committee on Homeland Security last October.

Todd Bensman, a writer with the conservative Center for Immigration Studies who has traveled extensively along the northward immigration routes, said travelers are frequently victimized and crime has exploded along with record increases in the numbers of people on the move.

“It’s not all about killings – they are getting raped and robbed, too,” Bensman said. “There are loan sharks who let victims know they know where family members are located – that’s a crime. And people are desperate, they are forced to steal food, there have been assaults on police, and recently a camp in Panama was burned down.”

Criminologists say part of the problem in measuring migrant-related crime in the United States is “sanctuary” jurisdictions that do not cooperate with federal immigration agencies. Sanctuary enforcement is also not a category traditionally tracked by law enforcement agencies. Nowrasteh said that several years ago he sent Freedom of Information Act requests to all 50 states seeking data on crime committed by or on immigrants and only Texas offered a response. Since then, he believes, Georgia has begun amassing statistics, but the state has not yet issued any public reports.

Grim arithmetic suggests the human costs of the unprecedented tide of illegal immigration under Biden, according to multiple reports and congressional testimony. A case in point is the hundreds of thousands of “unaccompanied alien children,” the innocuous-sounding phrase employed by a bureaucracy focused on avoiding the use of “illegals” who are newly arrived in the Biden years. Their oversight and handling has been mishandled, unintentionally or otherwise, by federal agencies, with the results of minors being trafficked and U.S. child labor laws being violated.

A 2023 report by the conservative Heritage Foundation found arrests for human trafficking rose by 50% and convictions for the crime by 80% in federal fiscal year 2022. Of those trafficked, 72% were immigrants, most here illegally, the report concluded. There was bipartisan outrage last July when the Labor Department revealed illegal child labor cases had risen by 44% in the last year.

The impacts are seen across the United States. The New York Post reports that “a street in Corona, Queens, has been transformed “into the city’s boldest open-air market for sex – one so popular with pervs that it’s advertised on YouTube. As police enforcement wanes and immigration surges nearly a dozen brothels have [also] set up shop along Roosevelt Avenue near Junction Boulevard.”

RealClearInvestigations has reported that many of the drug dealers who have turned San Francisco’s Tenderloin district into an open-air drug market are migrants connected to Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel. “The drug pushers are easy to spot: Unlike the users, they look healthy and wear clean clothes,” Leighton Woodhouse reported. “They’re almost universally young men, mostly Honduran (on the streets of San Francisco they’re called “Hondos”).”

Describing the plight of “twelve-year-old roofers in Florida and Tennessee,” “underage slaughterhouse workers in Delaware, Mississippi and North Carolina, and “children sawing planks of wood on overnight shifts in South Dakota,” the New York Times has reported that “migrant children, who have been coming into the United States without their parents in record numbers, are ending up in some of the most punishing jobs in the country.”

Millions of migrants working for legal businesses are also breaking the law. RCI has reported that “the historic surge of illegal immigrants across America’s southern border is fueling a hidden crime spree few in Washington seem willing or able to address: widespread identity theft victimizing unwitting Americans perpetrated by migrants who need U.S. credentials to work. … Federal authorities have found that well over 1 million are using Social Security numbers belonging to someone else – i.e. stolen or “shared” with a relative or acquaintance – or numbers that are fabricated.”

Such theft implicates many American citizens, who hire migrants with no such documents or who turn a blind eye to potentially stolen IDs.

Other Americans fall victim to crime connected to migration. For example, seizures of fentanyl, the synthetic painkiller the Centers for Disease Control blamed for a record 112,000 overdose deaths in 2023, have skyrocketed. In 2021, law enforcement agencies seized some 11.2 thousand pounds of the lethal drug, but in just two years the Chinese-abetted trade through Mexico has more than doubled, hitting 27,000 pounds last year, according to Customs and Border Patrol figures. Some immigration and drug experts believe the vast numbers of people crossing the border make it harder to interdict the flow of narcotics into the U.S.

Just two days before Biden used the description of “illegal” to describe Jose Antonio Ibarra, the 26-year-old suspected Venezuelan gang member accused of killing Laken Riley after entering the U.S. illegally in Texas in 2022, the Texas Department of Public Safety heralded the third anniversary of its “Operation Lone Star.” The figures offered a window into the law enforcement situation on what is something like Ground Zero of the illegal immigration to the U.S.

Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott described the operation as a direct consequence of the Biden administration’s deliberate failure to enforce existing U.S. immigration law. As of March, Operation Lone Star has resulted in “over 503,800 illegal immigrant apprehensions and more than 40,400 criminal arrests, with more than 36,100 felony charges,” the state’s Department of Public Safety said. In addition, authorities reported seizing “over 469 million lethal doses of fentanyl during this border mission.”

Disputed, and Elusive, Crime Stats
Despite all this, many immigration advocates continue to insist that immigrants tend to commit crimes at a lower rate than native-born Americans.

The news and social media may be filled with headline-grabbing incidents, such as the gang of migrants in New York City who beat police officers in Times Square. But Nan Wu, research director of the liberal American Immigration Council, told RCI the idea the U.S. is under some tidal crime wave due to the millions of illegal immigrants that have poured into the country during Biden’s first term is a sensationalist myth.

Perhaps the most widely cited study of this kind is one based on Texas statistics from 2012 to 2018 published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

“Relative to undocumented immigrants,” the study reported, “US-born citizens are over 2 times more likely to be arrested for violent crimes, 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes, and over 4 times more likely to be arrested for property crimes.”

But not all experts agree. Jason Richwine and Steven Caramota of CIS have criticized the PNAS study for failing to take into account further discoveries made by Texas authorities. “It is a misleading claim for several reasons,” the two claimed. “First, studies claiming it as fact are inescapably flawed, because most cities and states do not keep or publish data on criminals’ immigration status, rendering suspect any conclusions drawn from what data is available.”

Because the rates increase when the immigration status of people already serving time in Texas jails is taken into account, PNAS did not capture the full extent of the problem, Richwine told RCI.

“People have been way too hasty to draw firm conclusions because it’s not clear that Texas’ [statistics] are definitive – it’s not,” he said. “More states should do what Texas does and Texas should be more transparent about what they’re doing.”

The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to questions from RCI about migrant crime, nor did the Texas Department of Public Safety. But the dispute underscores the truth, acknowledged by all sides, that the paucity of reliable information leaves the only certain conclusion that there is more crime, regardless of perpetrator, because of the influx of more than 7 million people in three years.

“With law enforcement agencies in some cases it is willful blindness because they refuse to cooperate in any meaningful way,” Mehlman said. “If they acknowledge the extent of the crime committed by illegal aliens, they would have to explain to the public why they continue to maintain sanctuary policies that shield criminal aliens.”

There are also other problems with the widely cited figures on crime rates. One that plagues all crime research, as Herrmann told RCI, is that crimes are under-reported. Experts must rely on available law enforcement data and it is understood that for various reasons such figures are not comprehensive.

'Intellectual Fraud'
The numbers are misleading for another reason, too. Border Patrol agents told RCI that most people coming across illegally give themselves up quickly, knowing that current policies will allow them to be released into the U.S. with an expectation they appear for a court date years later. But the border crossers looking to stay in the shadows are more likely to be those with criminal pasts or inclinations, meaning a higher percentage of them would be among the at least 1.6 million “gotaways” Customs and Border Protection estimates have entered the U.S. illegally since 2021.

In fiscal 2023, it said in its most recent annual report, U.S. Enforcement and Removal Operations “removed 3,406 known or suspected gang members, an increase of 27.7% over FY2022, and 139 known or suspected terrorists, a 148.2% increase over FY2022.” It elaborated: “ERO officials made 170,590 administrative arrests, representing a 19.5% increase in overall arrests from FY2022. Of the total arrests ICE conducted in FY2023, 43% of those arrested had criminal convictions or pending criminal charges, up from 32.5% in FY2022.”

The House Committee on Homeland Security majority report in October said Border Patrol had “recorded 35,450 arrests of illegal aliens with criminal backgrounds, approximately 14,000 more total such arrests than the previous four fiscal years combined.”

Those apprehended with prior convictions had been found to have committed a wide range of crimes including assault, battery, domestic violence, and other sexual offenses, as well as driving under the influence, burglary, and theft, the report noted.

The committee’s Republican members were harshly critical of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’ handling of immigration, and their report was one more reason Mayorkas was impeached in February.

The harsh reality, one often voiced by survivors – Laken Riley’s parents among them – is that the horrific migrant crimes that draw national outrage might not have happened at all if laws were enforced.

“We have no idea if that would have changed anything, but he’s here illegally,” Laken Riley’s heartbroken father, Jason, said Mar. 18. “That he might not have been here had we had secure borders.”

In the aftermath of Riley’s shocking abduction and killing, her parents and others were incredulous that a man with prior arrests since his illegal entry to the U.S. and alleged ties to Venezuelan criminal gangs was in the country at all. The Border Patrol Union laid the blame squarely on Biden’s border policies.

Christopher Herrmann, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said such anguish is understandable, and said that trying to view the incidents dispassionately offers “nothing that will be satisfying to any victim.” Yet he said the same argument could be extended to other horrible murders – gun crimes, for instance, in which so often the lethal weapon was illegally obtained and possessed. The crime should never have happened, in other words, if laws were properly observed.

But Bensman finds that logic unpersuasive. Because opening the border has been a deliberate, sustained policy of the Biden administration, it has introduced the criminal, rather than his tools, into the equation.

“You can’t compare ‘illegal crimes’ to crimes by illegals – it’s the wrong comparison because the second one is 100-percent preventable and unnecessary whereas we’re stuck, as it were, with U.S. crime. The whole ‘they’re not as bad’ argument about illegal immigrants is an intellectual fraud, it’s giving them an escape hatch when here it’s clear: the perpetrator should have been deported.”

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