Selective Criminalization and Trump’s Crackdown on Immigrants

Source: Pixabay (CC0 Public Domain)

Source: Pixabay (CC0 Public Domain)

Donald Trump is promptly fulfilling one of his campaign promises by initiating a crackdown on undocumented immigrants. His recent executive orders have precipitated a harsh enforcement on undocumented immigrants in the United States. This has resulted in a sharp rise in deportations. Many long-term residents in the US have been deported, separating family members from one another and causing unease throughout the immigrant community. The order claims to focus on criminals; however, the language in the order is so broad that criminality can extend to practically anything enforcement agents desire.

While explaining his executive orders and the increased enforcement, Trump stated, “We do not need new laws. We will work within the existing system. We are going to restore the rule of law in the United States.”1 He is essentially saying that the laws on the books are good enough; they just need to be enforced. Therefore, fortifying the rule of law will fix the problems that immigrants cause. The problem with this logic is that it regards the law to be the infallible mediator of right and wrong. It then becomes: it is right to deport undocumented immigrants because they broke the law by entering the country illegally.

However, the application of law is not uniform. Most people are aware of the disproportionate outcomes of crime based on the socio-economic status of the offender. Reading through “Unpunished Criminals: The Social Acceptability of White Collar Crimes in America,” one gets a clear picture of the differences between certain types of crime and the extent to which they are treated. Street crime tends to result in damages to victims costing around $35, whereas white-collar crime (bank fraud, insurance fraud, insider trading, tax evasion, etc.) can result in over $600,000 in damages to victims. Annually, white-collar crime causes damages amounting between $250 billion and $1 trillion. The social effects of white-collar crime are spread out considerably wider than street crime. However, those who commit white-collar crimes do not experience the same treatment under the law as people who commit street crimes. Structural advantages such as access to better, more expensive lawyers and agency capture enable this. Also, white-collar crime is not reported on as thoroughly in the media as street crime. Moreover, criminal justice education does not stress white-collar crime as fervently as street crime because most students of criminal justice are interested in becoming employees of local police forces.2

This is very convenient for Trump and the dominant conservative media who utilize the disproportionate enforcement and media coverage of smaller crimes in order to paint the immigrant community as a severe and imminent danger. Their vulnerable position in society becomes even more vulnerable as they are actively targeted by law enforcement agents. Despite the harmful rhetoric and vilification, immigrants commit a far smaller percentage of crime in the United States. Sociologist Bianca Bersani details how “first-generation immigrants continually exhibit relatively low rates of offending” and that second-generation immigrants who are are “born and socialized in the United States” parallel US born citizens in crime because of their shared exposure to causal factors inherent in society.3 Multiple other reports have illuminated similar findings. The idea that immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, are causing more crime than native-born US citizens is simply false. Crime exists in both communities, but it is being used as a pretext only for undocumented immigrants in order to expedite their removal from the country.

White-collar crime, on the other hand, often goes unpunished despite its widespread effects on society. One does not have to search far to discover instances of such crime. As the country, and the world, continue to struggle in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, information is being revealed regarding the negligence of certain parties that caused the crash. An article in The Atlantic titled “How Wall Street’s Bankers Stayed Out of Jail” explains just that. In the case of JPMorgan Chase, the article describes the investigation into the financial institution’s actions of knowingly packaging unstable mortgages into securities and then selling them to investors. The bank did not go to court and, instead, a settlement of $13 billion was reached. No one went to jail and the bank continued business.4

There have been many other financial institutions that came under fire and settled for large sums of money. Goldman Sachs, which also sold to investors securities that were backed by mortgages likely to fail, paid a settlement of $5.6 billion. Their role in the crisis which caused millions of Americans to lose their homes has been forgiven with a simple payment.5 Small-scale crime is not afforded such a convenient luxury. Many former Goldman Sachs employees have joined the Trump administration, including Steve Bannon, Steve Mnuchin, and Gary Cohn.

In the aftermath of these shady financial affairs, Trump has been focusing on undocumented immigrants. His followers and the dominant conservative media promote the framework that demonizes them while ignoring the fact that criminal punishment is not uniform across society. Some might argue, and it is correct in certain cases, that bankers did not commit any crimes. This is because of the meticulous step-by-step process taken by financial institutions and their lawyers to ensure that they can escape legal punishment. The dynamic between the Justice Department, financial institutions, and the courts in recent decades has allowed precedents to be established and legal rights to be given to defendants in cases involving these financial white-collar crimes.6

One easily recognizes that this is neither fair nor ethical. However, the country is not ruled by ethics; it is ruled by law. Hence the “restore the rule of law” argument against undocumented immigrants that is being espoused by Trump and those subscribing to his framework. Undocumented immigrants are being singled out in a way that legitimizes the rule-by-law narrative while maintaining the racial undercaste. This racial undercaste is able to be maintained because the hegemony employs rule-by-law and race/ethnicity in order to divide people who could potentially turn into a unified, resistance bloc. A unification based on political marginalization and economic struggles could pose a serious threat to the hegemony. Therefore, dividing people along cultural lines works in favor of those in power.

A quick example of this framework in unapologetic action is the argument by conservative commentator Ann Coulter. In a discussion with Ben Shapiro on immigration, Coulter explains that “Americans are about to be outvoted by other voters, by foreign voters the Democrats have brought in.”7 She proceeds to say that this outvoting is the political problem with allowing immigrants to enter the country. However, by defining people along cultural lines (Americans and foreigners), she does not even get close to talking about real politics. Coulter continues and adds another problem other than the “political” one: the cultural one. By invoking the old clash-of-cultures argument, Coulter says that “we’re bringing in extremely primitive cultures… gang rape, child rape, incest rape. We are bringing in peasant cultures. It happens that Latin America is a peasant culture closest to us, but that’s not the only one.”8 This extremely offensive and ahistorical description, unfortunately, stems from the dominant paradigm.

The relegation of the racial undercaste to a cultural sphere can be noticed because it serves the hegemony. Viewing their struggles in a political or economic sense may cause people to question power dynamics. Granting any type of political or economic identity would blur the line between us and them; Americans and outsiders; an enlightened, exceptional culture and backward, foreign traditions. When it comes to immigration, one can notice this type of framework being employed, especially by those in power and those who advocate for them.

The framework of relegating immigrants (and non-western people, in general) to the cultural sphere is, unfortunately, the dominant one in society. That is the paradigm that is influencing many people, many voters, many media personalities, and the politicians who are enforcing these mass-deportation policies. To challenge what is happening in America, a total reformulation of ideas needs to take place. The Left must defend immigrants who are being targeted and their total subjectivity. Necessities which must be fought for include sanctuary cities and other existing infrastructure which seeks to safeguard immigrants from the life-shattering policies of the Trump administration. This must be done while criticizing the dominant framework, which seeks to scapegoat immigrants and deeply divide society to prevent the manifestation of a formidable challenge to power.

End Notes:

  1. Donald Trump, quoted in Tim Hains, “Trump: ‘We Do Not Need New Laws,’ I Will Enforce Immigration Laws We Already Have,” RealClearPolitics, January 25, 2017,!.
  2. Joseph P. Martinez, “Unpunished Criminals: The Social Acceptability of White Collar Criminals in America,” 2014, Senior Honors Thesis at Eastern Michigan University.
  3. Bianca E. Bersani, “A Game of Catchup Up? The Offending Experience of Second-Generation Immigrants,” Crime and Delinquency 60 (2014): 61,
  4. William D. Cohan, “How Wall Street’s Bankers Stayed Out of Jail,” The Atlantic, September 2015,
  5. Jana Kasperkevic, “Goldman Sachs to pay $5bn for its role in the 2008 financial crisis,” The Guardian, April 11, 2016,
  6. Jesse Eisinger, “Why Only One Top Banker Went to Jail for the Financial Crisis,” The New York Times, April 30, 2014,
  7. Ann Coulter, “Ann Coulter, illegal immigration is biggest threat to America; w/Ben Shapiro; Book TV, C-SPAN,” YouTube, published July 26, 21015.
  8. Ibid.