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How Trump’s Lies about the Wall Undermine Our Criminal Justice System

The facts just don’t support President Trump’s wall plan—or much else in his immigration agenda.

March 15, 2019

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/Getty)