It is almost trite and redundant to state that there is a contentious debate in the United States between those who are pushing for the strict enforcement of the immigration laws and those who believe that certain aliens, notwithstanding the fact that they are removable from the United States, should not be subjected to the "harsh punishment" of removal.
An interesting part of this debate is its framing. "Immigration enforcement" is linked to President Donald Trump, notwithstanding the fact that he has not signed a single piece of legislation that has changed the immigration laws of the United States, which are codified at 8 United States Code, commonly known as the "Immigration and Nationality Act", or "INA". The INA is a series of individual provisions, some of which were originally passed in 1952, that have been amended and added to since then.
Many members of Congress, mostly from the Democratic Party, have complained about the policies of the Trump administration that are geared toward the enforcement of those laws. Significantly, however, in the 111th Congress, when the Democratic Party held majorities in both Houses of Congress and the presidency, there were no significant overhauls of the INA, and no amendments to the act providing relief to those who were simply "undocumented" or "unauthorized" immigrants with no criminal record.
The president's immigration focus has largely been on enforcing the laws that are already around and that have been on the books for more than 20 years. The criticism that he has been receiving has largely been on actually enforcing those laws, in contrast to non-enforcement policies that were followed by the Obama administration, particularly between March 2011 and January 2017.
One particular group of aliens who have received a significant amount of support lately from opponents of immigration enforcement are aliens who entered illegally who have been convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI) or driving while intoxicated (DWI), collectively known as "drunk drivers".
For example, in a January 29, 2017, interview by Jake Tapper of CNN with New York Mayor Bill De Blasio, the following exchange took place (emphasis added):
TAPPER: Under a new sanctuary city law that you approved in October 2014, the city of New York shields from the feds undocumented immigrants who commit what are deemed to be lesser offenses. But they include drunk driving and grand larceny.
Why shouldn't the city of New York comply with federal law in this area? If you're are a drunk driver and you're an undocumented immigrant, why should there be a place for you in this country?
DE BLASIO: Jake, there are 170 offenses in that law that are listed as serious and violent crimes that lead to automatic cooperation between the city of New York and our federal partners.
So, any serious and violent crime, we're going to work with them. Someone commits a minor offense, for example, right now, if you didn't have clear definitions like we have — let's say someone had a small amount of marijuana — let's say someone went through a stop sign — they could be deported for that, and their family could be torn apart.
And you could have children left behind where the breadwinner in the family is sent back home to a home country. That's not good for anyone.
So, we differentiate. Anyone who is violent, anyone who is a serious threat to society, we agree we will work with the federal partners and they get deported. But we are not going to see, with a half-a-million undocumented people here — this would be true for 11 to 12 million undocumented folks in this country, the vast majority of whom are law- abiding — we are not going to see families torn apart over a very minor offense.
TAPPER: But is grand larceny or drunk driving a very minor offense?
DE BLASIO: Drunk driving that does not lead to any other negative outcome, I could define as that.
While Mayor De Blasio received significant criticism for this stance (including from Richard Mallow, the state director for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD)), the mayor has not retracted this stance.
Similarly, according to the Washington Times, Rep. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, a Maryland Democrat, told Thomas Homan, the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), that Mr. Homan should not try to deport drunk drivers, stating: "DWI or traffic is not really considered to be the type of people [sic] that are hurting our country."
Finally, on May 30, 2017, the Baltimore County (Md.) County Council held a public hearing at which it considered Bill No. 32-17, which would have directed the County Department of Corrections to participate in the federal 287(g) program. During that hearing, one of the members of the County Council who opposed that bill questioned whether it was in the best interests of the county to remove aliens whose only crime was drunk driving.
The level of support for aliens who entered illegally and were subsequently convicted in the United States of drunk driving is puzzling, given the nature of the offense and of the offenders.
In a March 2011 report titled "Criminal Alien Statistics, Information on Incarcerations, Arrests, and Costs", the Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimated, based on a random sample it had performed, that the criminal aliens it studied had an "average of 7 arrests, 65 percent were arrested at least once for an immigration offense, and about 50 percent were arrested at least once for a drug offense." This means that of the criminal aliens GAO studied, the average alien who had been arrested at least once was arrested seven times; simply put, criminal aliens generally commit other crimes.
Drunk driving is an offense that is particularly prone to repetition. According to MADD statistics, "an average drunk driver has driven drunk 80 times before first arrest" and "every day in America, another 27 people die as a result of drunk driving crashes" and "about one-third of all drivers arrested or convicted of drunk driving are repeat offenders." Any individual who is arrested for DUI or DWI has likely, therefore, driven drunk tens of times before, and has an extremely high chance of doing so again.
Recent local press reports have detailed the harm that aliens who have entered illegally and driven drunk can do:
- According to June 9, 2017, press reports, a car driven by Jose Acevedo in Auburn, Mass., "slammed into the back of a 2015 Subaru Outback causing injuries to two adults, including a mother who broke a vertebra, and two children ages 3 and 7 years old." It was reported that Acevedo was driving at more than three times the legal limit for alcohol when that crash occurred, and that he "later admitted to officers that he was in the United States illegally, coming here through Mexico through El Salvador, and to not having a driver's license. Investigators said he's been living in the U.S. illegally for 17 years." Nor was this first arrest, according to the press: "Acevedo had been arrested on a warrant in Worcester for allegedly operating a car without a license" hours earlier.
- On March 7, 2017, the Los Angeles Times reported that Estuardo Alvarado, who "has been removed from the U.S. and sent to Mexico five times since 1998, most recently in 2011," was charged with "murder, vehicular manslaughter and driving while intoxicated charges in connection with" a crash that killed a mother of two in California. That article quoted the victim's sister (a Los Angeles Police officer) as stating: "It's a great concern because this could have been prevented. ... It's sad and it's unfortunate. It's going to happen not just to my family but to other families."
- February 14, 2017, press reports out of Indiana state that: "Elizabeth Vargas-Hernandez, 35, [was] charged with operating a vehicle while intoxicated causing death. She was also cited for operating a vehicle without ever receiving a driver's license. "It was reported that she told police "that she has been living in the United States illegally for about four years and that is the reason she did not have identification," and that ICE had placed a detainer on her.
My colleague David Seminara noted in May the reluctance of the national media to report on such cases. Perhaps this is the reason that elected officials treat drunk driving by illegal aliens as a minor offense, the perpetrators of which should be shielded from immigration enforcement. Or perhaps they are aware of the dangers and prefer to ignore them in the interest of attacking the president and his larger agenda, or of seeking votes. In any event, it is time for an honest debate on this issue, one in which voters can weigh the dangers posed by drunk driving, and the arguments for and against giving sanctuary to illegal aliens who get caught drinking and driving.