Cut Kid and Add Criminal: How the Immigration Controversy Changes

John Moore/Getty Images

John Moore/Getty Images

Immigration as an issue in the United States has a lot of different sides to it. Any government problem that is enormous, complex, and multifaceted is bound to have separate and discrete problems with very different implications. Two political instances under the same topic heading can draw out different emotional responses from the public. Our immigration system and its many problems takes that to a whole new level. This is perhaps why, when FiveThirtyEight examined public opinion on immigration, it found the public opinion to be divided, especially when poll phrasing was considered.

Divided Public Opinion: Child Immigrants

When the AP/GfK and Public Religion Research Institute asked respondents whether or not children should be treated as refugees and allowed to remain in the U.S. “if it’s not safe to return,” 69 percent acquiesced. Asked more generally about how unaccompanied children should be dealt with, an AP poll in July showed only 46 percent saying children should be treated as refugees, and 52 percent saying they should not be. AP reports that by a 2 to 1 margin Americans dislike the present system we use for dealing with unaccompanied minors — a hearing from a judge before deportation — while 51 percent say they believe children should be sent home without a hearing. Republicans, of course, poll differently than Democrats, and the split there is predictable; 70 percent of Republicans say the unaccompanied minors shouldn’t be treated as refugees while 62 percent of Democrats say the opposite — according to AP/GfK.

What About Public Opinion Sans Children?

If polls regarding children crossing America’s borders are dependent on phrasing, it’s clear children are a particularly difficult part of the equation for respondents to contend with. When you remove that aspect, what you have are the other issues — border control, illegal immigrants living in the United States already, the separation of families, deportation, welfare, taxes, and so on. Gallup shows 41 percent of Americans saying that immigration should be decreased, almost twice as many as the 22 percent who say it should be increased, and a significant lead on the 33 percent who would keep immigration levels flat. Obama’s handling of immigration is fairly conclusively disapproved of, with 65 percent saying they don’t approve of his handling, and one out of every six Gallup respondents say that immigration is the top problem for America.

Even Less Gray Area: ICE Releases

Even less gray area is seen in the immigration debate if you swivel away from the over 50,000 children to look at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) 2013 release of hundreds of detainees, among which are to be found many with criminal records. The Office of Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security released a report on August 7 explaining exactly who had been released, how many, and why the population had been let go. The main political points are that a massive amount of money is required to house detainees, and that an administrative failure — fast becoming the norm where immigration is concerned — led to the release of illegal criminals. In response to the news that some 622 criminally convicted detainees had been released, Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) and others were quick to criticize. “This report confirms the Obama administration’s lack of coherent leadership on immigration policy. The safety of our border communities shouldn’t be put at risk because ICE officials decide to release detainees — many with criminal records — in order to solve their budget problems without waiting to see if they could obtain more funding,” said McCain.

Why Did the ICE make such massive releases?

The report suggests that “the release were improperly motivated” by budgeting deficits and the failure to “develop contingency plans to address the budget shortfall” that occurred after budget cuts and lower collection numbers resulted in less funding than expected. In order to deal with the decrease in budget, management chose to cope with this by decreasing the number of detainees, specifically the ICE Chief Financial Officer did so “through a sharp and immediate reduction in detention bed space.” According to the report, over 1,450 immigrants were released in the single weekend of February 23, 2012.

What Do They Mean By Criminal? Is That Overdramatized?

According to the report, “field offices did not release aliens they considered a danger to the community,” and it’s a little unclear exactly what criminal offenses are in question. For example, as many will recall, not so long ago Obama was criticized for over-deportation wherein he was deporting “criminals” only, but these criminals proved to be everyone from drug lords to traffic light violators. The ICE report isn’t clear on whether or not these individuals were considered criminal due to traffic violations, theft, minor altercations, and offenses, or precisely what criminal category they fall into. But one thing is clear: Rapists and murders would likely be considered “a danger to the community,” so careful realism should be used when considering the reports of mass releases of criminals. But even so, public opinion is much quicker to catch fire when the conversation is no longer focused on kids, and lines become a bit easier to draw in the sand, and government a bit easier to hold accountable for mismanagement.

Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that 70 percent of Republicans voted for unaccompanied children receiving refugee status. This has been corrected to reflect the actual Republican vote of 70 percent against refugee status.

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