Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

The tragic death of Kathryn Steinle, and lessons it may teach

Within days of Donald Trump's controversial assault on Mexican immigrants, Kathryn Steinle, a photogenic 32-year-old woman, was shot down and killed in San Francisco, allegedly by an illegal immigrant from Mexico. Trump and other Republicans rushed to cite that case as tragic confirmation of his claims.

To make matters worse, the suspect in the case, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, had a record of seven drug-related felonies, had already been deported five times, and had been released by San Francisco officials in April as part of its "sanctuary-city" policy rather than turned over to federal authorities as they had requested.

"This senseless and totally preventable act of violence committed by an illegal immigrant is yet another example of why we must secure our border immediately," Trump said. "This is an absolutely disgraceful situation and I am the only one that can fix it. Nobody else has the guts to even talk about it.”

But of course he's not the only one. Here in Georgia, state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, quickly called a press conference to announce legislation that would further target illegal immigrants in Georgia and also require local law enforcement to hold all suspected illegal immigrants for federal authorities, stripping local agencies of their discretion in the matter.

"The Obama administration and local governments across the nation are releasing convicted, violent deportable criminal aliens onto American streets who are murdering innocent people," McKoon alleged, citing the Steinle case as just the most recent example of an alleged wide-scale federal refusal to arrest and deport criminal immigrants.

Let's put this into context and set some things straight:

First, contrary to McKoon's implication, the number of immigrants with criminal records who have been deported by the federal government almost doubled in five years, from 105,000 in 2008 to 198,000 in 2013, the last full year for which data are available. (See Table 41) The federal government has made it a top priority to focus its efforts on finding, arresting and deporting illegal immigrants with a criminal record, and it has been highly successful in doing so. Any claim to the contrary is a fabrication.

Second, on average, 44 Americans are murdered every single day, 30 of them with firearms. To the degree that Steinle's tragic murder is unique, it's because the vast, vast majority of those people were killed by other Americans -- people who were born here and raised here. Steinle's death at the hands of an illegal immigrant, tragic as it was, is the exception rather than the rule. And pretending that Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez is somehow typical of the threat posed by illegal immigrants is no more valid than using Dylann Roof as emblematic of the threat posed by young white men.

Third, all of the data that we have available says that immigrants, both legal and illegal, are considerably less likely than native-born Americans to run afoul of the law. How do we know that? Easy. We count who ends up in prison. That data tell us that immigrants -- both legal and illegal -- are much less likely to end up in state prisons than native-born Americans.**

In New Jersey, a 2008 study found that immigrants make up 10 percent of the state population but 5 percent of those in state prison. In California, immigrants make up 35 percent of the population but just 17 percent of those in prison. The same is true nationwide: "Among men age 18-39 (who comprise the vast majority of the prison population), the 3.5 percent incarceration rate of the native-born in 2000 was 5 times higher than the 0.7 percent incarceration rate of the foreign-born."

And in the absence of data demonstrating that Mexico is sending us its worst, as Trump claimed, you are left with standard-issue anti-immigrant bigotry as the explanation for that claim.

Fourth, it is interesting to watch Republicans stomp their feet and insist that local law enforcement be stripped of its independence and dragooned into submitting to the priorities of the federal government rather than the priorities of the communities in which they serve.

At the moment, local police forces and communities still have the freedom to decide what approach best suits their needs. Some believe that close cooperation with federal immigration authorities alienates local law enforcement from local immigrant communities, causing a breakdown of cooperation in which crimes and criminals go unreported. Others believe that the benefits of close cooperation with immigration officials more than offsets any drawbacks.

According to a 2014 study, however, communities that chose to cooperate with immigration officials through the federal Secure Communities program saw no reduction in the crime rate for doing so.


"Our results show that Secure Communities led to no meaningful reductions in the FBI index crime. rate. Nor has it reduced rates of violent crime — homicide, rape, robbery, or aggravated assault. This evidence shows that the program has not served its central objective of making communities safer."


There's no question that San Francisco officials should not have released Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez. It was a serious mistake with tragic consequences. The mayor of San Francisco describes it as a breakdown of the system, rather than a product of the system, but an investigation is needed to determine whether that is true and what changes need to be made. "Let me be clear," Mayor Ed Lee said afterward. "San Francisco’s sanctuary-city policy protects residents regardless of immigration status and is not intended to protect repeat, serious and violent felons."

But in the end, the tragic death of Kathryn Steinle is just that, a tragic death of an innocent person, with none of the political lessons that some have rushed to project upon it. Despite the ramblings of Trump and his ilk, immigrants from Mexico, whether illegal or illegal, are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. And the federal government is not ignoring or downplaying the threat posed by criminal aliens, but is instead addressing it forcefully.


**And yes, the studies do account for the fact that immigrants who commit crimes are sometimes deported rather than imprisoned.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.