The Cycle of Criminalization in U.S. Immigration Policy

Last week, visitors from the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN) joined us at the Quixote Center for a conversation on migrant detention and the prison-industrial complex. We discussed the brutality of ICE, the injustice of Operation Streamline, and the expansion of private prisons. But there was one topic we kept coming back to: the cycle of criminalization.

The narrative we have heard from the current administration portrays Central American immigrants as violent gang members who bring crime to our country and must be deported. In his State of the Union address, Trump called on Congress “to finally close the deadly loopholes that have allowed MS-13 and other criminal gangs to break into our country.” His scare tactics are designed to stoke racist, anti-immigrant sentiment. His claims are also wildly misleading.

MS-13 is not a foreign threat and it is not a major danger to the United States. The gang began in Los Angeles in the 1980s, with the early group of teenagers looking for community, not violence. Many of them were the children of immigrants from El Salvador, a country that had been rocked by unrest and a civil war heavily funded by the U.S. government. But the Los Angeles police force launched massive “anti-gang” operations during that time that put many of these teens into the prison system.

As The Washington Post put it, “those sweeps, part of a militaristic zero-tolerance response to the nation’s social problems, failed to acknowledge that such problems were the direct result of underfunded social programs and systemic marginalization. Instead of serving as a deterrent, they further weakened social ties and increased exclusion, and thus facilitated the transformation and consolidation of MS-13 into a serious criminal enterprise.”

The situation was worsened by the Clinton administration, whose immigration policy deported thousands and sent the gang members back to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Once there, they faced similarly harsh policing and few opportunities outside of their gang. Their violence now drives many to the U.S. as a means of escape and the cycle continues.

MS-13 was not just formed in the United States, it exists precisely because of the United States. A U.S. funded war gave rise to their displacement. A militarized police force branded them criminals. The prison system gave them few options. Deportation gave them fewer.

But this story of criminalization is not limited to MS-13 members. Our current system treats all but a certain elite category of immigrants as criminals. ICE sends undocumented people to detention centers where they can be held indefinitely in high-security facilities. When they are deported back to their country of origin, stigma often follows. Many assume that detention and deportation in the U.S. are indicative of criminal behavior. It may be harder for the deported person to get a job or regain community trust when they have been seen as a criminal, so they may end up in prison again.

By criminalizing immigration, we are not just being inhumane, we are also participating in a cycle where the most severe consequences fall outside our borders. Despite political rhetoric, immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than the U.S. born population. Meanwhile, violence increases in the Northern Triangle, with El Salvador becoming the world’s most violent country not at war. Our prison-industrial complex is not just a failed response to crime, it is a breeding ground for it. When immigrant populations flee violence that we helped to create it is our duty to provide sanctuary, not jail cells. But the path we walk now is an endless loop of violence. 

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