In a number of ways, the Trump administration’s plan to curb illegal immigration in the United States could facilitate the type of crime that it purports to stop.

Backers of the plan appear to be relying more on emotion than evidence to make the argument that President Donald Trump’s order to expand the purview of border agents to detain and deport undocumented persons in the United States, and to open the door for an expansion of the border enforcement arm of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will slow the spread of crime and drugs, especially as it relates to the southwest border with Mexico.

In an appearance on CNN, former Pinal County, Arizona Sheriff Paul Babeu, for example, repeated false claims that undocumented migrants were responsible for thousands of crimes in the United States, and that Trump’s plan was about “restoring law and order.” As former Labor Secretary and Harvard Professor Robert Reich pointed out during the exchange, migration is dropping, as is crime, in the United States.

Furthermore, immigrants are less likely than native-born citizens to commit violent crimes or be imprisoned. And crime along the US southwest border has been falling over the last few years, including in Pinal County where Babeu was sheriff, according to state data.

But the reasons to question this measure go beyond data. The push for stronger enforcement could effectively undermine efforts to slow crime on both sides of the border. Here are five ways this could happen.

1. Loss of intelligence. As much as we would like to think that technology, such as cameras and drones, as well as forensic evidence help solve crimes — and they do — law enforcement still relies a great deal on witnesses and other sources to understand criminal dynamics, see patterns and stop crime before it happens. The Trump administration’s measure impedes efforts to develop these sources. Using local police to expand the dragnet, as has been proposed, will only distance law enforcement and prosecutors further from potential witnesses and sources.

The measure will also impede law enforcement’s ability to reconstruct the history of any crime or gain a deep understanding of neighborhoods where there are clusters of undocumented migrants. This includes cases that lead to identifying criminal behavior, such as domestic and child abuse, or illustrate an escalation of criminal behavior. Early intervention via soft measures such as social services or child welfare will also be virtually cut off, making children of migrants even more vulnerable to abuse and increasing the likelihood they get involved in crime later.

2. Increased demand for criminal services. The trickier the border crossing, the more need for professional assistance. That is why migrants turn to professional smugglers known as coyotes — who work with large, violent trafficking organizations — to facilitate these crossings. This will only increase as the US government tightens law enforcement and expands the border wall, says Guadelupe Correa-Cabrera, a professor the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and current fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

“This will definitely strengthen criminal networks (both smugglers and traffickers) on the Mexican side of the border,” she said in an email exchange. “The massive deportations that will take place in the near future will only worsen things, and this will be a fantastic business for migrant smugglers who hold very close connections with drug cartels that operate in northeastern Mexico, particularly along the Tamaulipas (state) border with Texas.

“Many will try to return to the United States, as they are currently doing and paying the smugglers and Mexican-origin TCOs [Transnational Criminal Organizations] to facilitate their return. Sometimes they are willing to work for these organizations, and they get involved in the business of human trafficking, migrant smuggling and drug trafficking as well. Some of them do not have resources or connections in Mexico who can provide them with resources to pay the fees the cartels and the smugglers ask for. Sometimes they are forced to work for the groups in control of these criminal activities in the different plazas.”

Proponents of increased enforcement like Babeu cite more availability of heroin and its deadly cousin, fentanyl, as reasons to support the measure. To be sure, much of the heroin production is now in Mexico, and a good deal of the fentanyl appears to be originating in China and coming through Mexico. And migrants are involved in the trade in the United States. However, as Sam Quinones — a long time journalist and author who lived in Mexico for 10 years — noted in a New York Times/Marshall Project editorial about Trump’s proposed extension of the border wall, these new measures will do little to stem the flow of heroin.

“Walls have not stopped drugs, especially heroin,” Quinones wrote. “It is the easiest drug to traffic in small batches across a border because it is so easily condensed — and easy to cut later.”

Finally, these US efforts to target undocumented migrants also miss the mark when it comes to the United States’ own capacity to foment and export crime and violence. As Quinones notes in Dreamland, his incredible book on the heroin epidemic in the United States, it was US demand for the over-the-counter opioid-based painkillers and the systematic overprescription of those medications that led to the heroin and fentanyl scourge.

In addition, it is the availability of US weapons that facilitates the violent confrontations between large and small criminal groups in Mexico (and, of course, in the United States as well).

3. More targets for corruption. The Trump administration says it will try to hire at least 5,000 new agents for Customs and Border Protection (CBP). It would be the second massive increase in a decade: Between 2006 and 2012, the CBP more than doubled in size from about 10,000 to 21,000.

That expansion had its problems. James Tomsheck, the former head of internal affairs for the CBP, told National Public Radio that the CBP had no polygraph test and that when it did implement one in 2008, more than half of the applicants failed the exam.

“It was what these applicants had done in the past that most concerned us,” he said. “They included serious felony crimes, active involvement in smuggling activities, and several confirmed infiltrators who actually were employed by drug trafficking organizations who had been directed to seek out positions within Customs and Border Protection to advance ongoing criminal conspiracies — essentially be spies in our midst.”

The Center for Investigative Reporting did a series of reports, which chronicled many of these cases and mapped the extent of this infiltration. It found that close to 150 CBP personnel had been charged with or convicted for corruption between 2004 and 2014.

4. Less remittances. Migrants in the United States send billions of dollars back in remittances to their countries of origin that largely sustain the economies of those countries. Many of the countries that rely on these remittances are also the most crime-ridden and gang-infested nations in the region. These include El Salvador ($4 billion per year), Guatemala ($6 billion per year), Honduras ($3.3 billion per year), and Mexico ($24 billion per year). Even a partial loss of these remittances could lead to economic hardship and more criminal activity, which could lead to more migration.

5. Less international cooperation. The message the Trump administration has sent to the world is clear: US-born citizens first. And for Trump and his myopic followers like Babeu, the measure is a step in the right direction. But the political costs of this position are extremely high. Trump’s go-it-alone strategy is already causing rifts between key allies like Mexico and the above-mentioned Northern Triangle countries, which, according to the Migration Policy Institute, account for almost 15 million migrants in the United States.

When thousands of unaccompanied youth from these countries — many of whom were fleeing crime and violence — flooded the US border in 2013 and 2014, the United States worked with these countries to develop a plan to provide assistance to stem the violence. While that plan appears to be moving forward, the criminalization of entire nationalities does not bode well for future cooperation in matters like this. This is critical since, as 2016 data compiled by American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies shows (see below), this trend appears to be on the rise again.


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Steven Dudley is the co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime and a senior research fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies in Washington, DC. In 2020, Dudley...