“Feds Released Hundreds of Immigrant Murderers, Drunk Drivers, Sex-Crimes Convicts”—The Washington Times.
“A New Level of Illegal Immigration Chaos”—Frontpage Magazine.
“ICE Ordered to Stay Silent on Release of 36,000 Criminal Illegal Immigrants”—Breitbart.
“Release of 36,000 Criminal Illegals Impeachable Offense?”—WorldNetDaily.
“Is Hillary Responsible for Releasing Criminal Aliens?”—National Review Online.
To say the right-wing media pounced on this week’s announcement by the Center for Immigration Studies—a D.C.-based, questionably nonpartisan nonprofit research organization—announcing that the Obama administration released 36,007 undocumented criminals last year would be an overstatement. It was more of a leisurely grab, as the report was released on Monday. Nonetheless, by midweek, a slew of fear-inducing headlines had sprouted up, of the kind sure to clutter Facebook newsfeeds this weekend.
Yet as one Newsbusters’ headline put it, the report has been virtually ignored by the “networks” or so-called mainstream media outlets. The numbers certainly sound shocking, if not attention-grabbing at the very least. So what gives? These numbers portend to illuminate society-threatening failures within the current immigration enforcement system. But the CIS report and the coverage surrounding it actually offer as much, if not more insight into how the national conversation surrounding immigration reform is manipulated by the interests of those covering it.
Before taking a closer look at the disturbing data being passed around, it would be in everyone’s best interest to consider its source. The Center for Immigration Studies refers to itself as a nonprofit, nonpartisan, independent research organization, boasting the puzzling tagline “Low Immigration, Pro Immigrant.” One of CIS’s founders, John Tanton, a retired ophthamologist from Michigan and known anti-immgration activist, was also behind Numbers USA, an immigration reduction organization that, according to The New York Times, helped kill President George W. Bush’s attempt at comprehensive immigration reform in 2007. Another one of Tanton’s groups, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, helped draft Arizona’s controversial SB-1070, permitting police to detain illegal immigrants. Numbers USA, FAIR, and CIS were all part of the effort that successfully defeated the DREAM Act in the Senate in 2010.
Since 1995, CIS has been led by Mark Krikorian, the child of Armenian immigrants who didn’t learn English until kindergarten; he was paradoxically an early opponent of the movement toward bilingual education in the United States and has made a career crusading against mass immigration.
Krikorian, the SPLC claims, has been known to “hobnob with extremists.”
A longtime columnist at the conservative National Review (and the author of that “Is Hillary Responsible for Releasing Criminal Aliens” post mentioned above), Krikorian is an advocate of “enforcement by attrition,” a concept better known, thanks to Mitt Romney, as “self-deportation.” As a testament to Krikorian’s, and CIS’s influence in D.C., a June 2013 Washington Post profile entitled, “The Provocateur Standing in the Way of Immigration Reform,” reframed the question of whether immigration reform can pass as, “Can Mark Krikorian be stopped?”
Coverage of Krikorian by the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremists and hate groups in the United States, has been far more critical, if not scathing. Krikorian, the SPLC claims, has been known to “hobnob with extremists.” According to the SPLC, Krikorian accepted an invitation to speak alongside known Holocaust denier Nick Griffin and so-called “racial realist” Jared Taylor at the Michigan State chapter of Young Americans for Freedom in 2007, despite the group having recently made news for orchestrating such offensive events as “Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day,” a “Koran Desecration” competition, and covering the campus in “Gays Spread AIDS fliers.”
Despite affiliations like these, the SPLC argues that CIS has managed to project the image of a reliable source for immigration research while pumping out “study after study aimed at highlighting immigration’s negative effects.” One example of this is “Hello, I Love You, Won’t You Tell Me Your Name: Inside the Green Card Marriage Phenomenon,” a 2008 CIS report which concluded, “If small-time con artists and Third-World gold-diggers can obtain green cards with so little resistance, then surely terrorists can do (and have done) the same.”
There’s no question that CIS’s latest report—proclaiming that the Obama administration released 36,007 undocumented immigrants with a combined 88,000 convictions between them, including homicide, sexual assault, kidnapping, aggravated assault, drunk or drugged driving, and flight escape—intends to highlight the negative effects of immigration and, more specifically, immigration enforcement policy under the current president. The report’s author, CIS Director of Policy Studies Jessica Vaughan, admits as much. With ICE data Vaughan says she received from one government official and verified with two others, CIS hopes to raise questions “about the Obama administration’s management of enforcement resources, as well as its enforcement plans and priorities.”
In a statement to The Daily Beast, ICE deputy press secretary Gillian Christiansen highlighted key points that CIS failed to address, such as the fact that convicted criminals are only sent into ICE custody for deportation proceedings once they’ve completed their criminal sentence. Many of the 2013 releases, ICE says, were required by law. For example, as a result of the 2001 Supreme Court decision in Zadvydas v. Davis, the U.S. is required to release detainees whose home country either denies the return of its nationals or has diplomatic beef with the United States, such as North Korea or Cuba. Christiansen says some detainees with less serious offenses were released at the discretion of enforcement officers based on “the priority of holding the individual, given ICE’s resources, and prioritizing the detention and removal of individuals who pose a risk to public safety or national security.” Immigration court judges, on the other hand, ordered the majority of releases for people with convictions of more serious crimes. “For example, mandatory releases account for over 72 percent of the homicides listed,” ICE said.
Muzaffar Chishti, the New York director of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, argues that understanding the circumstances of each release is critical to forming an opinion of the data CIS has shared. Was it an immigration judge’s order? Are they helping law enforcement officials with criminal investigations? In the latter case, Chishti notes, not only are people released but they’re typically also given a green card. Additionally, understanding the type of convictions these people carry is also valuable.
“Homicide is a very broad category,” Chishti said. “You can have vehicular homicide. Not everyone is an ax murderer.”
“This may sound like a large number, but in our overall criminal justice system people get released all the time,” told The Daily Beast in response to the CIS report. “How does this stack historically? This is a select presentation of a set of facts without any comparative analysis that can lead to misleading conclusions.”
The American Immigration Council’s response to the CIS report was less tempered. In an email blast Thursday, AIC—which recently released a searing report of its own on the lack of response to complaints of abuses by Border Patrol agents—called CIS “nativist” and its “oversimplified” report “an attempt to derail an honest debate about immigration policy.”
The fear-inducing stats aren’t so scary once they’re broken down, AIC argues, noting that the list of crimes ranges “from tax fraud and disturbing the peace to aggravated assault and kidnapping.” Some 32,800 traffic convictions (including DUIs) are grouped together with more serious crimes. “The point is that looking at this group of people as an undifferentiated whole doesn’t tell you much about who poses a risk to public safety and who does not.”
AIC also note that even within our immigration system, foreign-born individuals, documented or not, are afforded at least some legal protections: the freedom from being held indefinitely without cause, the right to a bond hearing that determines whether they pose a danger to public safety or are a flight risk, and the right to contest their deportation.
“The U.S. Constitution does not permit the creation of an immigration gulag in which being born in another country can earn you a life sentence,” AIC writes.“This latest report from CIS is anti-immigrant fear-mongering at its lowest. Immigrants are demonized as dangerous criminals, despite the fact that they are less likely to commit serious crimes or be behind bars than the native-born,” AIC writes, pointing to its own study demonstrating this argument. “Individual cases of serious crimes committed by immigrants are held up as proof that all of “them” are a threat to “us.” This is a cynical and small-minded view of the world that bears no relationship to reality.”
Jessica Vaughan acknowledges that the CIS report offers no context for why these convicted criminals were released by ICE nor how many of them aren’t actually free but under ICE restrictions such as GPS monitoring via an ankle bracelet, telephone monitoring, supervision or bond as they await deportation proceedings. And while she hopes ICE will provide more details on who these criminals are and the decision-making behind their release, she also doesn’t think it matters much whether they are technically under ICE restrictions or not.
“There is a huge difference in the level of supervision over this group,” Vaughan told The Daily Beast. “Some of them are not supervised at all, released under their own recognizance. Others may be under what ICE calls supervision, they have to show up once every few months to an ICE office to check in, or make a phone call. That’s what’s called ‘supervision’ but it’s not like anyone is supervising what they’re doing.”
For over five years, ICE has been required by a Congressional directive known as the “bed mandate” to have an average 34,000 detainees in its custody every day. Depending on who you ask, that’s excessive and expensive, or not nearly enough. To Vaughan and CIS, it’s the latter. Vaughan says ICE needs to petition Congress for more detention funding because, “in the short run, given that most of them are not going to show up for their detention hearings, keeping these people in custody not only protects the public, but it sends the message that our immigration laws are going to be enforced and people will be sent home when they are arrested and convicted for crimes.”
The other thing Vaughan and Krikorian say ICE can and should do is insist that the State Department stop issuing visas to people from those countries where criminals, once in the United States, cannot be returned.
“This is the most basic form of immigration law enforcement,” Vaughan said. “If we can’t even manage to hold onto criminal aliens, how can this administration be trusted to do more routine immigration law enforcement that protects American jobs and how can they be trusted to implement complex comprehensive immigration reform that they’re asking Congress to pass?”
The window for passing immigration reform before the November midterm elections is quickly closing and whether Congress will pull it off is still anyone’s guess. President Obama made another push for reform during a law enforcement briefing this week and just this Thursday, a Tea Party Express co-founder urged conservatives to seize on immigration reform as an opportunity for growth. Meanwhile, Republican senators said they’ll work to pass immigration reform if they win back the Senate, undermining the Democratic argument that failing to pass reform this year would ruin the GOP’s reputation with Hispanic voters ahead of 2016.
CIS clearly has a dog in this fight, and early reactions to the report from some of the House Republicans who hold the keys to passing immigration reform suggest that Vaughan and Co. are eliciting the exact amount of outrage from lawmakers that they’re looking for.
“This would be considered the worst prison break in American history, except it was sanctioned by the president and perpetrated by our own immigration officials,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tx) according to The Washington Times. House Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va) said DHS Secretary Johnson has some explaining to do. Both of them reportedly said, “These criminals should be locked up, not roaming our streets.”
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Michigan State chapter of Young Americans for Freedom made news for a “Korean Desecration" competition.