US Attorney carries Trump’s message on immigrants
Press releases increasingly highlight defendants’ nationalities
WHEN PRESIDENT TRUMP took office 19 months ago, the US Attorney’s office in Massachusetts started issuing more and more press releases about cases where the defendants were identified by their nationality, a move designed to draw attention to the administration’s claim that illegal immigrants pose a danger to society.
“One of the things we wanted to highlight, in keeping with the president’s priorities, was to at least bring into the public conversation that there is some fraction of the illegal immigrant population in this country that is committing a number of other offenses,” said US Attorney Andrew Lelling, who took the job in December. “My position on this is if you have someone who is in the United States illegally and commits an offense, we should be bringing to the public’s attention that correlation.”
Lelling is continuing a public relations offensive first implemented by William Weinreb, who served as acting US attorney after Carmen Ortiz stepped down following the 2016 election. Lelling and Weinreb have issued far more press releases than Ortiz and also played up the nationality of the defendants.
A review of archives from the US Attorney’s office shows there has been a marked increase in press releases under Lelling and Weinreb compared to Ortiz. In 2017, under the two GOP appointees, the office sent out 799 press releases; so far this year, the agency has sent out 476 through July 24. Ortiz’s office, by contrast, sent out 427 press releases in 2016, 452 in 2015, and just 328 in 2014.
The shift on identifying the defendant’s country of origin is even more dramatic. Nearly 37 percent of those identified in Lelling’s press releases this year place the nationality in the headline or first paragraph; last year the percentage was 29 percent.
Under Ortiz, a defendant’s nationality was identified in just 1.1 percent of the press releases in 2016; 2.4 percent in 2015; and 4.3 percent in 2014. In those instances where Ortiz identified the nationality of a perpetrator, she generally connected it to their immigration status. Of the five press releases her office issued in 2016 that identified a defendant’s nationality, only one, involving an Egyptian living in California charged in a mortgage fraud scheme, appeared unrelated to his status as a foreign national. But his crime involved working with people who still lived in Egypt, which the press release pointed out made his nationality relevant.
In a telephone interview, Ortiz declined to comment on Lelling’s approach. But she said her office avoided identifying a defendant’s nationality in most cases. “The problem with that is it gives a picture of (immigrants) being the ones who are committing crimes,” she said. “It skews the picture.”
Some of the press releases issued by Lelling’s office refer directly to the defendant’s immigration status. For example, the office announced recently that Daniel Emilio Frias Segura, who was identified as a “Dominican national,” was arrested on a warrant from that country on a charge he murdered and dismembered his wife there in 2010. He disappeared the day after his wife’s body was found and he was discovered living in Lynn after apparently entering the country illegally.
In January, Lelling’s office announced that Jary Vincente Valenzuela, a Guatemalan national who had reentered the country illegally after being deported, was sentenced for failing to register as a sex offender after he was convicted of child rape in 2012.
A number of studies have shown that immigrants, both legal and undocumented, do not commit a disproportionate number of crimes. A study released in March in the journal Criminology claimed that areas with a high density of illegal immigrants have a lower rate of violent crime than regions with a lower density of immigrants, though the researchers admitted other factors such as economics, demographics, age, employment rates, and incarceration rates varied, making it tough to distinguish nationality as a controlling factor.
Another study released this year by the Cato Institute that followed convicted felons in Texas in 2015 showed native-born citizens were more likely to be convicted of crimes than either illegal or legal immigrants per 100,000 people of their population groups.
“It’s a form of dog whistle politics, contributing a troubling message even though statistics would show immigrants as a whole don’t commit more crimes,” said Mary Holper, a professor at Boston College Law School and director of the school’s Immigration Clinic. “It’s dehumanizing the perpetrator. It suggests that this is happening all the time.”
Holper said the inclusion of nationality in press releases should be treated the same as race, including the information only if it’s relevant.
“How many of their press releases say a black man committed a crime?” Holper asked. “It’s the same thing as undocumented. Why does it matter? It‘s sort of a gratuitous fact that’s added in. That is a policy choice.”
Lelling, who dismisses the term “undocumented” as a “consciously politicized term,” conceded the decision to identify by nationality can give an unbalanced view of how many immigrants commit crimes. But he said that’s a political debate he does not get involved in even though his actions are founded in the political stances of his bosses.
“I think word choice is often a political statement,” he said in an interview in his ninth floor office at the federal courthouse in South Boston. “There is, of course, conscious word choice. I use the term illegal immigrant. It strikes me as the most accurate term. The term undocumented immigrant strikes me as a consciously politicized term. It’s a euphemism. I’m not allowed to have an undocumented handgun. We don’t call it an undocumented handgun. We say you illegally have a gun. I can’t be an undocumented driver. I have to have a driver’s license, but if I don’t I’m driving illegally. It’s not clear to me why that should be different in the immigration context, short of politics.”He admitted that his office “was not always consistent” in initially distinguishing between legal and illegal immigrants in the press releases but said he now only highlights those who aren’t here legally. As for the concern that highlighting such information leads the public to reach blanket conclusions about immigrants, Lelling said he has made clear that not every person entering the country illegally commits a crime.
“I’m a law enforcement official, I’m not a policymaker,” he said. “There is a reason why we are bringing to the public’s attention the fact that some portion of the people we prosecute are here illegally. But then, of course, it doesn’t mean every person who has entered the country illegally is committing some other kinds of crime. You’ve heard me say that here. I’ve said it in other public venues, but that’s really all I can do.”