President Obama's Silent Immigration Amnesty, Part II: The Consequences of Ignoring Broken Windows

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on October 19, 2010
[See also "President Obama's Silent Immigration Amnesty, Part I: Ignoring Broken Windows."]

President Obama's silent immigration amnesty undercuts his public promise to respond to Americans' desire to curtail illegal immigration and enforce our country's immigration laws. Dismissing the cases of those already being brought before the courts for violating immigration laws is an awful betrayal of his word to Americans.

But it is worse that that because his silent amnesty, in effect, further shatters immigration policy's already broken windows.

Recall that the essence of broken windows theory is that the communication of official or community neglect, in the original case a car that was left "untended" and "abandoned," increased criminal behavior. This held true in both wealthier (Palo Alto) and more mixed economic neighborhoods (the Bronx). The more general version of the theory held official or community signals that no one cared increased the incidence and severity of criminal behavior.

Broken windows theory has obvious implications for immigration enforcement and the incidence of undocumented immigration. However, first let me be very clear about what I am and am not arguing. Coming to the United States to work in violation of the country's immigration laws is a serious transgression and reflects a flagrant disregard of the community and civic norms that undocumented immigrants say they wish to be part of.

It's a serious transgression because it results in a large number of damaging consequences to that very civic culture, including, but not limited to: underscoring repeated government inability or unwillingness to enforce the immigration laws; repeated promises to do so which are undercut by actual behavior (as in the case of silent amnesties); increasing the level of mistrust in government that is a result of these elements; and the reverse halo effect where in upset with the enormous number of illegal immigrants spills over into feelings about immigrants more generally.

However, it is not as serious a crime at the level of a "felony record or any misdemeanor convictions involving DWI, sex crimes or domestic violence," crimes for which the government will not ask the courts to dismiss pending immigration adjudications. Obviously, crimes that include bodily and emotional harm are in a well-deserved class by themselves.

Yet it is true that while breaking immigration laws is not itself, ordinarily, a violent act, there is often violence associated with it. The many illegal immigrants who pay others to help them break our laws are, in effect, supporting criminals, many of whom are members of organized crime cartels. The average illegal immigrant crossing the border with that kind of help doesn't think much about what he or she is supporting; their focus is only getting into the United States. But that motivation doesn't remove the fact that in doing so they are filling the coffers of career criminals for whom violence is no stranger.

Broken windows theory applied to crime argued that lower-level criminal activity leads to more troubling levels and types of crime, and this kind of relationship cannot be argued with immigration transgressions for the most part. While there can be little doubt that the large market for false identification stimulates and supports those who break immigration laws, the step from low-level immigration-related crime to more serious criminal activity involving bodily harm is not my point here.

Broken windows theory is ultimately about communication signals and resolve. The crime problem in New York took a decided turn for the better because the mayor, his police chief, and other civic officials took a public stand on the basis of a civic principle: "low-level" or so-called "quality of life" crimes would not be tolerated, and actual steps were taken to back up that adherence to the principle. Subway fare jumpers were arrested, fingerprinted, their backgrounds checked. Not surprisingly, many of them had outstanding warrants for previous transgressions whose court appearances they had ignored up to then with impunity. Aggressive panhandlers were warned and watched by neighborhood police. The same was done to the city's notorious squeegee men. Repeat offenders were arrested and charged.

The basic signal sent was that these communities – be they the subways, entry roads into the city, or neighborhoods like the Upper West Side – were not "untended" and not "abandoned."

Compare that with the enforcement of American immigration laws by both this administration and, to be fair, those that preceded them. The immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 traded the promise of enforcement for the immediate reality of legalization. Yes, new workforce enforcement measures were placed on the law books, but they contained a giant loophole that both employers and undocumented workers soon understood and exploited. Any form of identification, whether valid or not, let employers off the legal hook, with the result that the illegal population grew to where it stands now – somewhere between and 10 and 12 million.

Does this level of enforcement send the signal: We're serious. No, it cannot possibly send that signal.

And what of the federal hands-off policy regarding so-called "sanctuary cities?" Does that send a signal of seriousness about enforcement? No, it does not. It can no more do so than dismissing immigration cases against those not convicted of violent crimes, or publicizing immigration audits that allow undocumented immigrants to walk away from their jobs when they are asked about discrepancies on their I-9 forms, free to find other work will convey seriousness of purpose.

This is the exact opposite of the behavior that led to the large successes of broken windows theory to decrease crime.

The Obama Administration's approach, for all its public emphasis on going after serious criminals, consciously and systematic chooses to essentially to ignore the enforcement of basic immigration laws.

Call it the breaking-more-windows theory of immigration law enforcement.