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The Immigration-Crime Nexus and Post-Deportation Experiences: En/Countering Stereotypes in Southern California and El Salvador

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Historically, periods of accelerating immigration have been accompanied by nativist alarms, perceptions of threat, and pervasive stereotypes of the newcomers, particularly during economic downturns or national crises, and when immigrants have arrived en masse and differed from the native born in language, race, religion, and national origin. Stereotypes about immigrants and crime not only take root in public opinion and popular myth, but can also provide the underpinnings for public policies and shape political behavior. Such stereotypes, fueled by media coverage of singular events and reinforced in popular culture, project an enduring image of immigrant communities permeated by criminal elements. Moral panics can be spread by “agents of indignation” (the media, pundits, political figures) and propel public support for the need to “police the crisis.” Immigrants are commonly stereotyped as more likely to become involved with crime and to be arrested and incarcerated. This is especially true for Mexican and Central American immigrants, who are often young men from racialized minorities with little formal education coming to work in low-wage manual labor jobs. The fact that many of these immigrants enter the country through unauthorized channels or overstay their visas is further framed as an assault against the “rule of law,” reinforcing the impression that immigration and criminality are linked; and those who are deported are perceived as not only “undocumented laborers” but “criminal aliens.” This article reviews research findings on immigration and crime in Southern California, and deportation and crime in El Salvador. We focus on the experiences of young adult children of immigrants, mainly Mexicans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans who together account for two-thirds or more of the undocumented immigrant population in the U.S.; and on men, including former gang members, who have been deported to El Salvador on criminal and non-criminal charges. The evidence rebuts popular myths that immigrants and deportees are more prone to criminal behavior than natives and citizens. Nationally, rates of incarceration among immigrant men are much lower than among their U.S.-born counterparts. Like crime generally, the problem of gangs in the U.S. is primarily one that involves the U.S. born, who as citizens are not deportable; and despite the aim of public policies to remove problematic “criminal” and “illegal” beings, deportation is not the end of the cycle of migration. Stereotypes endure because they serve basic defensive social functions, maintain belief consistency, and preclude cognitive dissonance; they are rooted in emotion and impervious to fact. A politics of fear, xenophobia, and hyperbolic moral indignation about “law breaking” by “illegal aliens” may help “rally the base,” especially in times of rapid demographic change and perceived social and economic threats. But it is no substitute for scientific evidence and reasoned analysis in law making, formulation of policy, and the understanding of complex social problems.

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