Challenging the Criminalization of Immigrants

December 14, 2017 Lucy Odigie-Turley

Insights from The Opportunity Agenda

I have been finger printed by the United States government over 50 times. And that is likely a low-ball estimate. It was only recently, while touring the National Immigration Law Center’s office - currently home to a beautiful collection of artwork created by immigrants - that I came to this realization.

Illustration of hands being fingerprinted by the U.S. Customs and Immigration
Source: National Immigration Law Center/Codaworx

The artwork that sparked my epiphany was a small canvas painting by Hong Kong native and LA-based artist, Miggie Wong, showing the range of motions visitors and permanent residents to the United States have to make each time they enter the country. The hand movements are all too familiar to me - a ritual I’ve performed every time I’ve returned home to the United States over the last decade. My unique familiarity with the content of the artwork was reinforced when my coworkers, both born and raised in the United States, asked questions about what the image depicted. Their lack of familiarity came as somewhat of a surprise, but solidified the unique experience of millions of visa-holders and permanent residents who call the United States home.

The United States is just one of 17 countries that has introduced or is planning to introduce a so-called “biometrics program” for incoming tourist, visa holders, and permanent residents, which involves the collection of finger prints and other physical data for the purpose of identification and access control. Of these 17 countries, he United States has the most comprehensive program, with both finger-printing and facial recognition software used in the processing of tourists, visa-holders, and permanent residents.

The United States biometric program is just one example of how the suspicion and questioning that shrouds many immigrant communities has materialized in our interactions with the United States government. It shapes our everyday experiences as U.S. residents.

There is clearly a pressing need to address these underlying prejudices and challenge or reframe discourse around immigrant communities.

Findings from The Opportunity Agenda’s latest report ‘Redefining Sanctuary, indicate that the systemic questioning of immigrants goes much further than customs. It is embedded in many people’s overall attitudes toward immigrants. Our analysis of existing public opinion research shows that despite many positive trends in attitudes toward immigration, several challenges still persist—the most troubling of which is the how susceptible large segments of the public are to anti-immigrant rhetoric when immigration policies are framed within the context of law and order and public safety.

Photograph of a hand being fingerprinted at U.S. Customs and Immigration

This appears to be a direct by-product of negative stereotypes and false narratives about the criminality of immigrants. Such narratives are swaying levels of support for pro-immigration policies, particularly sanctuary policies. While multiple empirical studies conducted over the years have found that immigrants do not increase local crime rates and are, in fact, less likely to cause crime than their native-born peers,[1] perceptions that associate immigrants with crime can predict an individual’s level of support for sanctuary jurisdictions and related immigration policies.

There is clearly a pressing need to address these underlying prejudices and challenge or reframe discourse around immigrant communities. Some practical recommendations include framing discussions of pro-immigrant policies in terms of the role they play in ensuring strong, safe, and connected communities while avoiding associations with crime and violence. It is also important to acknowledge the growing diversity of our nation and the sense of uncertainty that this may be creating for some individuals, while stressing that some politicians try to capitalize on these fears through divisive discourse.

Telling pro-active stories that center around the voices and perspective of immigrants will prove essential to reframing the discussion and enabling us to more effectively challenge the subtler, often hidden everyday othering of immigrant communities and individuals.


[1] Michelangelo Landgrave and Alex Nowraste,”Criminal Immigrants: Their Numbers, Demographics, and Countries of Origin, Cato Institute, March, 2015. Retrieved October 17, 2017.