THE BLOG
04/27/2016 02:49 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

"Kate's Law" and the License to Hate

Last month, Arizona state police arrested Jacinta Gonzalez, a Latina activist, for participating in a Phoenix-area highway blockade held in protest of a Trump rally. Despite Gonzalez being a U.S. citizen, Arizona police took her to immigration authorities. Gonzalez is far from alone in being a Latina feeling the heat from authorities in an election year.

Local police, like all of us, are affected by what is happening on national news. And non-stop anti-immigrant rhetoric is coming 24/7 at times from some right-wing presidential candidates, including front-runners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. I am a Latina immigrant, originally from Peru, and I grew up in an immigrant neighborhood near New York City. This rhetoric has had a disastrous effect on communities such as mine.

Immigration "reform" has been one of the hottest buttons of this year's presidential election: Trump, if elected, for instance, wants to build a wall on the Mexican-American border. The second most popular Republican candidate, and Trump"s main competitor for the Republican nomination as of now, Cruz, has also proposed his share of anti-immigrant legislation: indeed, in 2015 Cruz sponsored what is the most dangerous "immigration reform" legislation before Congress.

The bill, "Establishing Mandatory Minimums for Illegal Reentry Act of 2015", is also known as "Kate's Law." If passed, "Kate's Law" would impose a mandatory five-year minimum sentence on aliens who illegally reenter the country.

The legislation was named after Kate Steinle, a thirty-two-year-old woman who was inadvertently killed by an undocumented Mexican immigrant, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, on a San Francisco pier in July of 2015.

According to the ballistics expert who testified in the preliminary court hearing, in August 2015 in San-Francisco courts, Lopez-Sanchez' gun was pointed towards the ground. He shot the gun-foolishly enough, trying to shoot seals-and the bullet ricocheted off the pavement, fatally wounding nearby Kate Steinle. Lopez-Sanchez, admittedly is a terrible representative of any group of people; he had been deported on five separate occasions previously, and immigration authorities had wanted him for a sixth deportation.

Since Lopez-Sanchez was already an undocumented felon, this tragic event sparked a national debate which questioned the wisdom of the country's current immigration systems. In order to garner support for this bill, Republicans like Cruz have used stories such as this rare and odd example of Lopez-Sanchez' terrible behavior to paint all Latino immigrants - who are overwhelmingly law-abiding people - as reckless potential law-breakers.

This hate rhetoric is especially dangerous because the public perception of crime and immigration does not align with reality. According to Rasmussen Reports, fifty-three percent of voters believe that illegal immigration increases the levels of serious crime in America. But the facts run contrary to this myth: the American Immigration Council reports that immigrants are actually less likely to be criminals than are the native-born, and that higher immigration is actually associated with lower crime rates.

It is especially unfair to paint undocumented immigrants as likely criminals when we take into consideration some of the reasons why immigrants come to the United States in the first place. Many immigrants who cross the border are doing so in order to escape political instability, gang violence, and poor economies back in their home countries. These are people who are self-selecting to raise families in a peaceful, stable place.

Yes, entering the U.S. illegally is technically a crime. But there is a double standard for giving immigrants legal status as political refugees. Many groups who are fleeing violence, such as Syrian migrants, are securing refugee status; but Mexicans and other Central Americans are usually not legally considered "refugees" even though they are fleeing similar conflicts. There seems to be little clear justification for this double standard.

Few of us would wait for the United States to process a visa over the course of many years, if our families just over the border were in continual danger. One might ask, why can't Latino immigrants all just go through the process of securing citizenship? But few understand that applying for permanent residence and citizenship is a timely, expensive and arduous process, and it is out of reach for those who suffer the most economically. Sometimes, decent people feel that there is little other option for them but to live, at least for a while, under the radar.

But "Kate's Law" addresses what is really a bureaucratic problem with a nuclear bomb. Sections of "Kate's Law" actually create stricter punishments, a legal double standard, for all undocumented immigrants. In fact, as you can see from page 3 on BillCam, the bill gives people without papers much harsher sentences for the same offense than someone with papers would receive. Surely this violates the section of the 14th Amendment that ensures due process of law for all persons, regardless of immigration status.

Additionally, critics of "Kate's Law"; point out that this bill is extremely expensive for taxpayers. Since "Kate's Law" increases mandatory minimum sentences for immigrants re-entering the country, the US Sentencing Commission estimates that, if it passes, the prison population will increase by 57,000 prisoners. That is a whopping 25% increase.

That organization also estimates that this would bring up the Federal annual prison budget from seven billion dollars to nine billion dollars to account for housing these new (not-really) criminal prisoners.

A two billion dollar annual increase in incarceration funding is a disproportionate response to a single death, however sad that event that was.

Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute's Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, states:

"If policies should change, it should not be in reaction to a single tragic murder. It should be in response to careful research on whether immigrants actually boost the U.S. crime rates."

This is exactly what "Kate's Law" ignores: real research.

"Kate's Law" benefits Cruz's campaign, despite being unnecessarily damaging to taxpayers and appallingly unjust to immigrants. But is it really fair to allow an irrational fear of immigrants to dictate whether we choose to criminalize the entire population? This racist overgeneralization based on one very bad apple is unjust to America's Latino population. Supporters of this bad bill--including the infamous Bill O'Reilly--should consider how substantial Latino voters have become as a bloc, and for this reason as well as moral reasons, rethink their truly un-American advocacy.

An immigrant from Lima, Peru, and aspiring immigration lawyer, Samanta Honigman is now settled in New York City where she is currently an undergraduate student at New York University in the Global Liberal Studies program with a concentration in Politics, Human Rights, and Development.