Does the Case of an Illegal-Alien Murderer Raise Policy Questions?

By David Seminara on October 31, 2013

On Saturday, a 25-year-old Chinese immigrant named Chen Mingdong reportedly went on a murderous rampage in Brooklyn, stabbing to death his cousin and her four children — ages 1, 5, 7, and 9 — in what NYPD officers have described as one of the most gruesome killing sprees in recent memory. He's been charged with five counts of murder. According to press reports, Mingdong is unemployed and lived with the cousin he killed. He was apparently jealous of his cousin's success and suffered from some form of mental illness. The New York Post reported that Mingdong got into an argument with his cousin after hitting one of her children before going on the killing spree.

The New York Times reported that Mingdong immigrated to the United States from China in 2004 and in a follow-up piece, quoted assistant district attorney Mark Hale, who stated that Mingdong was an "undocumented immigrant". The Daily News, the Wall Street Journal, and other publications quoted Hale using the term "illegal alien". The fact that major news outlets have confirmed the fact that Mingdong was in the country illegally is noteworthy in and of itself. Often, reporters fail to disclose the immigration status of a suspect or convicted criminal, either because the police won't release the information or because a reporter or editor deems it irrelevant or likely to spark negative feelings toward immigrants.

Just as it makes no sense to take sides in the immigration debate based upon individual stories we read in the press about "law-abiding" illegal immigrants who get straight A's in school and help old ladies cross the street, we can't extrapolate anything about our large population of illegal immigrants based on one story of a homicidal maniac in Brooklyn.

But this case raises a number of questions that are relevant to the immigration debate. We don't know how Mingdong came to the United States in 2004. I've asked the State Department to confirm whether he arrived in the United States with a tourist, student, or some other non-immigrant visa (NIV), but I doubt I'll get an answer. That said, based on my experience as a former Foreign Service Officer (FSO), I'd be willing to wager a large sum of money that Mingdong arrived in the United States with a tourist visa, probably to visit the family he slaughtered.

In 2004, he would have been 16 and minors who are below working-age often have an easier time qualifying for a visa then someone who is a few years older and would likely go right into the labor pool in the United States. The State Department issued 173,140 B1/2 (tourist visas) in 2004. The current approval rate for tourist visa applications in mainland China is a staggering 91.5 percent; the rate in 2004 was likely lower than that, probably closer to 80 percent, but the odds were still clearly still stacked in the applicants' favor.

According to U.S. immigration law, tourist visa applicants are required to prove that they have strong ties to a residence abroad in order to qualify for the visa. But how does a 16-year-old have strong ties to anything? They don't, so in practice consular officers evaluate his or her family's situation. This isn't always a very good barometer for whether someone will overstay their visa though, because even some relatively comfortable families in plenty of countries would like to send their children to live in the United States if given the chance. Teenage minors tend to get treated with kid gloves in the visa process, but the law doesn't stipulate that they should be accorded any different treatment than an adult, so there is no reason to continue this practice.

Aside from the obvious question of how and why Mingdong got into the country, we should also think about the mental health question and how it applies to illegal immigrants and a potential amnesty. Most of the amnesty proposals we've seen ask for migrants to prove they have a job and a clean criminal record. But I've yet to see an amnesty proposal that requires applicants to have a mental health evaluation to certify that they are sane. The fact that one has a job and no serious criminal record is not proof of sanity. We only need to look at the case of the Navy Yard assassin for proof of that.