It’s a lot easier to be a “bad hombre” than Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump would have you believe when it comes to the undocumented immigrant population.
During the final presidential debate on Wednesday, Trump spoke one word of Spanish, promising that his immigration policy plan would include a proposal to deport criminal undocumented immigrants — or as he called them, the “bad hombres.” He has also promised to increase immigration enforcement to detain and deport immigrants.
For Trump, there is no gray area when he lumps together the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrant population as criminals, rapists, and drug dealers. And many of our laws in this area similarly lack nuance. It’s important to understand that immigrants facing any criminal conviction — big and violent or small and nonviolent — could be deported, in part thanks to a 1996 federal law that expanded the type of crimes, like marijuana possession, that can lead to mandatory detention.
“The idea that immigrants are ‘bad hombres’ is a problem in the United States,” Fernando Garcia, the executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, told ThinkProgress. “That statement disregards that the vast majority of people who come into the country — they come to work, they come to contribute to this society. The idea that there would be some people who would commit a criminal act — that is quite real — but the dangers of this is that you generalize the attitudes of all communities and you don’t make a difference between crimes.”
For decades, the criminal justice system has disproportionately punished inmates for drug offenses regardless of severity. The Obama administration has attempted to curb this practice through sentence reduction or commutations of individuals who commit low-level, non-violent crimes. But that same amount of leniency hasn’t carried over to both legal and undocumented immigrants who may be convicted of a traffic infraction only to bear the brunt of mandatory detention and potential deportation.
A 2014 Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) report analyzed Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and found that the most serious charge for almost half of the total number of deportations were for immigration or traffic violations. Such violations could span the range of offenses, like driving without a license or driving while intoxicated.
“I’ve met many immigrants who have convictions for driving without a license, working with a fake ID — offenses that are almost inherent to living here without authorization,” Grace Meng, a senior researcher at the U.S. program for Human Rights Watch, told ThinkProgress. Only 12 states currently allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license, leaving many people to risk breaking the law every time they leave to go to work.
“Of course laws are important, but not many people would say that these offenses are necessarily egregious or damaging to society in the same way that typical crimes are,” she added.
What’s more, between 2007 and 2012, the U.S. government conducted nearly 260,000 deportations of people who were convicted for drug offenses. “Deportations of people for drug possession spiked 43 percent during the same period,” Meng wrote earlier this year. Yet many of those people may have turned their lives around and set down roots.
Meng cited the example of a rehabilitated grandmother who had a 20-year-old conviction for selling $5 worth of crack cocaine. The woman has both U.S. citizen children and grandchildren, but because of her crime, she faced an aggravated felony conviction and mandatory deportation.
“Aggravated felonies sound very bad, but there are people who don’t have a felony conviction, that don’t have an aggravated offense, and end up with an aggravated felony,” Meng explained. “It’s a term of law, rather than a term that you and I would understand implicitly to be a really bad and dangerous act.”
“Immigration law is often incredibly unforgiving and harsh,” Meng added.