Las Vegas Sun

May 20, 2024

Opinion:

Student’s killing reflects broader danger, but it isn’t ‘immigrant crime’

Americans have become all too familiar with Jose Antonio Ibarra, the man accused of killing nursing student Laken Riley on the University of Georgia campus. The disturbing details of this young woman’s death are truly the stuff of nightmares. As moms with kids at or near college age, our hearts resonated with the sorrow of her family when we learned of this tragedy.

As researchers who study crime, we were also struck by a dramatic shift that took place just 24 hours after Riley’s death, when the public learned that Ibarra is a Venezuelan migrant who entered the country illegally. Locally and nationally, collective grief turned to collective vilification as politicians, pundits and others asserted that illegal immigration is driving a “crime wave” that Riley’s killing exemplified.

This crime is in fact representative of a broader epidemic of violence — one characterized not by its perpetrators but by its victims: women. Alarmingly, more than half of women in the United States have experienced sexual violence in their lifetimes. The World Health Organization has identified violence against women as a “major public health problem.”

Unfortunately, it’s not the problem policymakers are rushing to address in the wake of Riley’s death. Republican legislators in Georgia, for example, are pushing to require police and sheriff’s departments to help identify, detain and deport immigrants who are in the country illegally, while the U.S. House passed a bill to require federal detention of unauthorized immigrants accused of theft. Public perception is following suit: Former President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall has never been more popular, and online threats against migrants and Latino students are creating a climate of fear.

Are fears of widespread “immigrant crime” justified? No.

One of us has been studying the immigration-crime nexus for 15 years and is a co-author of an exhaustive survey of systematic research on the topic, which concluded that “immigrants have lower involvement than the native-born on an array of crime measures.” Our review of the small but growing body of research on undocumented immigrants specifically arrived at the same conclusion. We need immigration reform for myriad reasons, but crime isn’t one of them.

Despite this well-established fact, news stories on the Riley killing — bearing such headlines as “Suspect in murder of Georgia nursing student entered U.S. illegally, ICE says” — continue to highlight Ibarra’s immigration status, reinforcing the belief that immigration and crime go hand in hand. This is in keeping with a long-standing tendency to make immigrants scapegoats for a variety of social problems, including alcoholism and disease.

The hand-wringing over the connection between immigration and crime serves to obscure the much more legitimate and pernicious problem of violence against women. While men have historically been more likely to become victims of serious violence, the gap has closed in recent years. A third of female homicide victims are, as Riley allegedly was, killed by strangers, but most are killed by intimate partners or other people they know. Worldwide, 47,000 women were killed by intimate partners or family members in 2020 alone.

Shockingly, 41% of American women have experienced physical or sexual violence or stalking by an intimate partner. One in 3 report having experienced severe violence or stalking. Even more appallingly, homicide is the leading cause of death among pregnant and postpartum women, exceeding obstetric causes of death at least twofold.

The social and economic consequences of violence against women are staggering, amounting to more than $3 trillion in lifetime costs across the U.S. population. The long-term effects of intimate-partner violence include physical and mental health problems, addiction and increased risk of arrest and incarceration.

Though U.S. prisons hold more men than women, female imprisonment has grown at twice the rate of male incarceration since 1980. Conservative estimates suggest about half of women in custody have been physically or sexually assaulted prior to incarceration, while studies have found that 77% to 98% suffered intimate-partner violence.

The policy response has not been equal to the problem. The Violence Against Women Act was reauthorized in 2022, but only after lapsing for four years due to partisan wrangling over an expanded gun provision. Most female victims of serious violence don’t get support services, and the availability of service providers across the country is abysmally low — only 3.7 per 100,000 residents. A 2022 congressional report noted that as many as 400,000 rape kits remain untested nationwide. Despite increased attention and funding to address the backlog, many states are woefully behind, and thousands of kits remain untested.

New restrictions on abortion and increasingly lax regulation of guns are likely to fuel even more violence against women in many states. Firearms are involved in more than half of intimate-partner homicides, while research shows that enforcing stricter gun laws reduces such killings. Yet the Supreme Court is weighing whether or not to uphold a federal law prohibiting people under domestic violence restraining orders from having guns.

Laken Riley’s killing should remind us of the ways that violence against women is downplayed, tolerated and even facilitated in America. Misusing this crime to demonize immigrants, capitalize on misguided fears, call for reactionary policies based on flawed beliefs and gain votes in an election year is one more way of diminishing and distracting from the problem it actually represents.

Charis Kubrin is a professor of criminology, law and society at UC Irvine, a member of the Council on Criminal Justice and a co-author of “Immigration and Crime: Taking Stock.” Sarah Shannon is an associate professor of sociology and the director of the Criminal Justice Studies Program at the University of Georgia. They wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.