In the late 1960s Phil Zimbardo, then a young Assistant Professor of Psychology at CUNY's Brooklyn College, parked a car without a license plate and with its hood up in a Bronx neighborhood, had a comparable car parked in Palo Alto, Calif., and photographed the results. As George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson, the well-known creators of one of the most important theories of crime prevention noted, "The car in the Bronx was attacked by 'vandals' within ten minutes of its 'abandonment.' The first to arrive were a family – father, mother, and young son – who removed the radiator and battery. Within twenty-four hours, virtually everything of value had been removed. Then random destruction began – windows were smashed, parts torn off, upholstery ripped. Children began to use the car as a playground. Most of the adult 'vandals' were well-dressed, apparently clean-cut whites."
In the more fashionable area of Palo Alto, the unattended car was still intact a week later, but then Zimbardo smashed the car windows and the same mayhem ensued: "Soon, passersby were joining in. Within a few hours, the car had been turned upside down and utterly destroyed. Again, the vandals appeared to be primarily respectable whites."
Thus was born that famous "broken window theory of crime prevention," which was successfully applied to New York City crime reduction during the Giuliani administration. The theory involved is relatively straightforward.
Cars that look abandoned signal that they belong to no one and thus are fair game. Community norms may have been stronger in Palo Alto than in the Bronx, at least at first, but once the abandonment signal became clear, it was open season on the car and on the community norms in both places. More generally, "untended" behavior leads to the breakdown of community controls. At that point, vandalism and other crimes increase once communal barriers – the sense of mutual regard and the obligations of civility – are lowered by actions that seem to signal that "no one cares."
That is the basis on Mayor Giuliani and his police chief William J. Bratton began to target "low-level" crime like aggressive panhandlers, subway fare jumpers, New York's infamous "squeegee men" – who accosted vehicles at stop lights washing windshields with dirty water and demanding money – among other quality-of-life problems. That was coupled with a citywide program that used detailed street-by-street crime statistics and accountability measures that made precinct commanders responsible for reducing crime in their areas. Applied in a determined and serious manner, these programs reduced the level of crime in New York City and the city actually began to feel safe. Even those not disposed to applaud the police welcomed the relief they felt when they sent their children off to walk to their local schools each morning.
That brings us to the Houston Chronicle report from this past weekend entitled "Immigration cases being tossed by the hundreds." It offers, "the first glimpse into Homeland Security's largely secretive review of pending cases on the local immigration court docket." And what does it find? Well, "In the month after Homeland Security officials started a review of Houston's immigration court docket, immigration judges dismissed more than 200 cases, an increase of more than 700 percent from the prior month, new data shows."
This is not the first time the issue has arisen. In September, USA Today reported that "The Obama administration is changing the federal immigration enforcement strategy in ways that reduce the threat of deportation for millions of illegal immigrants."
That story further reports that, "Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director John Morton ordered agency officials on Aug. 20 to begin dismissing deportation cases against people who haven't committed serious crimes and have credible immigration applications pending." The more recent Houston Chronicle report adds that, "Government attorneys in Houston were instructed to exercise prosecutorial discretion on a case-by-case basis for illegal immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for at least two years and have no serious criminal history."
Let's be clear. What we have here, in essence and in fact, is a presidential administrative immigration amnesty. President Obama has used the powers of his office to declare a national amnesty for every undocumented immigrant who has not been convicted of a serious felony. Actually, that's not quite accurate – the administration has done everything possible to mute and obscure its amnesty initiative. Like the administrative policy of audits as "silent raids" that allow undocumented immigrations to remain free and find other illegal work, this is in effect a silent amnesty.
Worse, the decision first affects those who have already been apprehended and are being handled by the legal procedures Congress set up to deal with the immigration enforcement issue. Supporters of the change say that it will allow the government to better concentrate scarce resources on removing criminal aliens and reducing the large court backlogs of immigration removal cases.
To say that removing criminal aliens is "more important" than removing already apprehended undocumented immigrants is an easy-to-sell talking point, but begs the question: Why can't the government both prosecute and remove criminal aliens and at the same time put enough resources into the legal system to remove those immigrations who are living and working in the United States in violation of its immigration laws?
Obama's silent immigration amnesty is objectionable on many grounds. It breaks his word about responding to the American people's concern with illegal immigration. It does so in a silent administrative way that tries to cover up what is being done.
And it is likely, if and when what he is doing becomes more publicly known, to further fuel the sense that the administration may listen and say the right things for public consumption but, in the end, it simply doesn't care what Americans think on this issue.
Next: President Obama's Silent Immigration Amnesty, Part II: The Consequences of Ignoring Broken Windows