One of President Donald Trump’s top campaign promises from the 2016 election was a wall between the United States and Mexico financed entirely by the Mexican government. But to date, every justification President Trump has offered for a border wall has come up plainly false, including his latest: that the experience of El Paso, Texas shows why a wall would work. Indeed, this latest argument isn’t just wrong. It also exemplifies how Trump and others have used misinformation and fear to motivate voters, especially with misleading connections between immigration and crime—a tactic that will have long-term consequences for our country and our criminal justice system.
El Paso sits on the Mexican border and is separated from the Mexican city of Juarez by mere inches. In mid-2009, El Paso completed construction on a wall separating itself from Juarez. According to Trump, El Paso was among the most dangerous U.S. cities—right up until that wall was built. Trump also claims that upon completion of this wall, El Paso became one of the safest cities in the country, immediately—or in his words, “Overnight. Overnight.” He’s repeated this claim on several occasions, most recently at a rally in El Paso itself.
But Trump could hardly be more wrong. El Paso has long been (and continues to be) one of the safest cities in the country relative to similarly sized major cities across the United States and has also generally been the safest among Texas’s major cities. Of Texas’s six major urban areas, El Paso has enjoyed the lowest violent crime rate nearly every year since 2005, with the exceptions of the three years following the wall’s mid-2009 completion. There’s no reason to believe the wall made El Paso more dangerous. But it certainly didn’t make it any safer.
Trump isn’t the only politician to spread false narratives about crime to motivate voters. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) sought to convince the public that they were living through to the early stages of a “new crime wave”—but that crime wave never materialized. Or consider then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who declared that “violent crime [was] back with a vengeance” near the end of 2017—a year that recorded the third lowest national violent crime rate since 1971. Ironically, Sessions later went on to claim credit for heading off this phantom crime wave.
Here are the facts. Currently, the crime rate in the United States is nearing historic lows. In a recent analysis, the Brennan Center estimates that in 2018, in most cities, overall crime rates in major cities kept again to record lows. Today, violent crime is near where it was in 1970 and property crime rates have decreased to the lowest level in over fifty years. This decades-long downward trend will likely continue, as evidenced by analyses such as the recent preliminary release of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report.
Here’s another fact: there is little evidence that immigration increases crime at all, according to a number of recent studies. This finding is further supported by researchers at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, who found that immigrants, legal or undocumented, are less likely to be arrested, convicted, and imprisoned for crimes.
Misleading the public about crime affects the public’s perception of public safety. This, in turn, can lead to the implementation of bad, reactionary, and generally ineffective criminal justice policy. For example, the conflation of Latin American asylum seekers with gang members is what leads some Americans to support child-family separation at the southern border. And a false narrative about undocumented immigrants, violent crime, and drug trafficking may lead voters to support the construction of a wall that will not halt illegal immigration or have any measurable effect on violent crime—all while siphoning billions of dollars away from effective efforts to curb drug trafficking.
When elected officials weaponize intentionally misleading crime statistics, they are exploiting the fears of their constituents. In doing so, they overlook long-term criminal justice policy consequences in pursuit of a short-term victory—their own reelection.
(Image: Joe Raedle)