Gooze Views

Peter Galuszka


The Big Lie?


Headlines tie immigrants to sex crimes as politicians like GOP gubernatorial hopeful McDonnell cash in on the xenophobia they stir up.


As far as P.R. goes, it was pretty slick. Bob McDonnell, Virginia’s attorney general, got headlines throughout the region Feb. 21 by showing he was tough on both immigration and sex offenders. For an ambitious Republican politician bent on the governor’s office in 2009, it’s like hitting a double in the early innings.


Boasting that his cooperation with federal and state law enforcement authorities serves as a national model, McDonnell said 171 immigrant sex offenders had been identified and set up for deportation. Newspaper headlines and local television teasers wrapped immigrants, fairly or not, in unwelcome negativity. The mantra was recited once again: “Immigrants Equals Bad,” thus garnering future votes for nativist politicians, such as McDonnell, who play on xenophobic fears they stir up.


Once you start to look at the McDonnell offensive, however, it doesn’t seem so brilliant. Last summer, McDonnell asked the State Police and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to check the state sex-offender registry against lists of people born outside the U.S. They came up with 527 names. One cut left them with 171 immigrants, legal or illegal. Of those, 84 had left the U.S. voluntarily or been deported, 132 were in state prisons already and were ready to be deported. A whopping 36 dangerous sex maniacs actually became new arrests.


In other words, the McDonnell campaign found that most of the foreign-born people on the sex offenders list weren’t here, had been deported or were about to be deported. That’s hardly a call to arms for ever tougher enforcement. But it doesn’t matter because headlines equate McDonnell, GOP gubernatorial candidate, with being tough on immigrants. He’s already built a career as Virginia Beach commonwealth’s attorney as being tough on sex offenders.


A question crossed my mind. Could it be that immigrants are more prone to sex crimes than native-born, baseball, hot dog and Chevrolet Americans? To find out, I called David Clementson, a spokesman for the attorney generals office, but he didn’t know.


So, I turned to the Web. There is plenty posted by conservatives. They all seem to cite a 2007 study by Deborah Schurman-Kaulflin of the Violent Crimes Institute of Atlanta. Her report, “The Dark Side of Illegal Immigration,” reviewed 1,500 violent crimes from January 1999 to April 2006. She concluded that based on a figure of 12 million illegal aliens, a greater percentage than usual number commit sex crimes, including rapes, child molestation and sexual homicides. Apparently, she took the findings of her 1,500 violent cases and extrapolated the estimate on the 12 million illegal alien figure that is generally accepted.


Nativists have had a ball with the report. They love to cite Schurman-Kauflin’s figure that there are 240,000 illegal immigrant sex-offenders in the U.S. One is U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who would have you believe that 12 Americans are murdered every day by illegal immigrants.


For more perspective, I searched further. One scintillating report I saw claimed that veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces, who happened to be incarcerated for crimes, are also more likely to be sex offenders. In 2004, according to the report, there were 140,000 military veterans in prison. Over half were in for violent crimes and were twice as likely as non-veterans to be there for committing sex offenses.


One wonders why McDonnell does not likewise probe how many U.S. military veterans are sex offenders. He probably won't, though, as his political campaigns have made a very big deal that he’s a retired Army lieutenant colonel. Such an inquiry wouldn’t go down well in military-oriented Tidewater.


I also called Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. She says that the McDonnell initiative shows an effort to better coordinate data gathering among state, local and federal law enforcement regarding immigrants, and that’s not a bad thing. Here's what worries her, however: “You are investing power in local authorities that don’t have expertise in various forms of immigration.” Also upsetting is the trend towards the “criminalization” and “politicization” of immigration in general.


One more issue is simply using the sex offender registry. There are plenty of cases in which people are listed unfairly or their crimes involved being 15 and having consensual sex with a 16-year-old. There isn’t much differentiation made between under-age sex and rape. Indeed, on the McDonnell list, many of the foreign-born sex offenders committed their crimes as long as a decade ago, going back to 1996.


And while we’re on the topic of Republican politics and sex offenders, let’s not forget that former Chesterfield Supervisor Edward B. Barber copped a lesser plea last year when he faced sentence of life in prison after his teen-aged step-daughter accused him of sexual abuse. He recently settled a lawsuit in the matter and is on the sex offender registry.


Asked about whether foreign-born individuals are more prone to sex crimes than the U.S-born, Butterfield replied that the Immigration Policy Center has concluded that foreign-born are less inclined to crime.


I guess it all depends on whose report you believe. Meanwhile, the likes of McDonnell are drumming up xenophobic fears for obvious political purposes. Was it Hitler who talked about the Big Lie? If you keep repeating something enough, people will believe it.


-- February 25, 2008
















Peter Galuszka is a veteran journalist living in Chesterfield County. View his profile here.


(Photo credit: Maria Galuszka.)