The Undocumented Threat: Beliefs, Policy Preferences, and the Politics of Immigration
Gonzalez, Benjamin Fontaine
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I examine the causes for the increasing convergence between immigration and criminal law, known as crimmigration, and its consequences for public opinion. Drawing on theories of path dependence I argue that this convergence began in the 1920s as hostility towards Mexican immigrants increased, culminating in S. 5094 that declared undocumented reentry a felony. This initial act of criminalization redefined undocumented Mexican immigration as both a problem and a criminal violation, while at the same time creating learning effects and positive feedback loops that made changing direction difficult. I trace the immigrant-as-criminal narrative through Congressional debate on the Johnson-Reed Act, S. 5094, IRCA and IIRIRA. I argue IRCA represented a critical policy failure (CPF) and a missed opportunity to turn away from criminalization, instead leading to a regression to the policies of the past, which were reborn in IIRIRA. Having shown how entrenched the immigrant-as-criminal narrative has become in Congressional debate and policymaking I next examine public opinion on immigrant criminality. Drawing on two national polls on immigration attitudes, I show that beliefs in the immigrant-as-criminal narrative are common in the American public and that media consumption plays a unique role in influencing public opinion on criminal threat. Finally, I asses the consequences that a belief in the immigrant-as-criminal narrative has for policy preferences regarding the treatment of undocumented immigrants. I find that perceptions of criminality do in fact play a role in determining policy preferences, with those agreeing that undocumented immigrants are criminals being more likely to support deportation and felony charges. The implications of these findings for attempts at comprehensive immigration reform are then discussed.
- Political science