Sitting in a crowded office in lower Manhattan last week, Silvio Marcía was multitasking, mentally composing a sermon as he waited to get some legal advice.
A lay preacher at Candelero del Oro in Brooklyn, he had chosen for his text an enigmatic passage from the Gospel of Matthew: Jesus, hungry and apparently annoyed, curses a fig tree without any fruit, causing it to wither as his astonished disciples watch.
“I’m going to say, ‘Watch how you talk, because words have power,” Mr. Marcía says in Spanish, noting, too, that Jesus uses the withered fig tree as an example of the power of faith: If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.
Marcía and his wife have been praying a lot these days. The office where he sits is at Catholic Charities Community Service, and Marcía, an unauthorized immigrant from Nicaragua living in New York for almost a decade, is waiting with dozens of others hoping to receive free legal advice, and take his first steps to change his legal status.
But something else has been making him particularly nervous, an added weight he feels on the streets, in the subways, and even at work.
“I’ve seen a lot more hate toward immigrants,” he says, as his wife, Charlene Marcía, a US citizen born in California, translates. “It wasn’t always like this. When people look at me, they just see a man who is committing crimes.”
Such perceptions have become a central issue in the sharp-edged debate over how to address the nation's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants. As the Trump administration ratchets up enforcement efforts, casting a wider net to prioritize those accused of minor infractions or even those deemed a threat by an immigration agent, crime and public safety have powerfully shaped both its policies and public reasoning.
Well before President Trump launched his candidacy with a 2015 speech that suggested Mexicans and Central Americans brought drugs and violent crime into the country, there had been a widespread tug of war over how people should understand undocumented immigrants like Marcía and the number of crimes they commit.
But Marcía’s own life shows some of the gaps between political rhetoric and popular perceptions and the more complicated realities. For one, Marcía did not cross the border illegally, which is a misdemeanor crime; he overstayed a 2008 tourist visa, which is a civil offense.
Scholars estimate that up to 40 percent of illegal immigrants are visa overstays, and the Department of Homeland Security estimated that more than 400,000 people overstayed visas that expired in fiscal 2015.
While he is here without papers, Marcía works in Manhattan as an office clerk, paying payroll taxes and filing a return with the IRS with a special Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). In 1996, the tax agency created these tax ID numbers specifically for immigrants without status, and the program has served as a kind of “sanctuary”-like federal policy, allowing undocumented immigrants obey tax laws. The IRS, by law, keeps ITIN information confidential, and does not share it with immigration enforcement officials.
Filers using ITINs paid more than $870 million in income taxes in 2010, and add more than $9 billion a year in payroll taxes to the system, according to the IRS. Most are not eligible for any federal benefits.
“If you look around New York City, some of our strongest communities are formed by immigrants, whether documented or undocumented,” says Margaret Martin, director of the unaccompanied minors program at Catholic Charities’ Immigration and Refugee Services division. “And so they’re coming here to be with family, to really make a place for themselves in the country, and to be residents here and to go to school and to be a part of the community and to be safe. So I don’t associate them either with crime, or even being disruptive to our communities here.”
For many others, however, there is the conviction that those here illegally have violated a basic rule of fairness. There are millions around the globe who clamor for the opportunities living in America could bring. Offering help, amnesty, or a legal path toward citizenship would, in essence, unfairly reward those who cut in line. It’s a common-sense argument that resonates with millions of Americans.
The Trump administration has gone further, highlighting violent crimes committed by unauthorized immigrants in new weekly reports. A part of its battle against so-called sanctuary cities, the administration is now listing those jurisdictions that refuse to cooperate with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainer requests. A kind of public shaming mandated by the president’s executive order, these reports also list the nationalities and the crimes committed by illegal immigrants.
Trump’s executive order also established a new “Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement Office," a special division within US Immigration and Customs Enforcement meant to help those victims who feel “marginalized and without a voice.”
“Criminal aliens routinely victimize Americans and other legal residents,” Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly explained in one of his agency’s enforcement memos. The office “will facilitate engagement with the victims and their families to ensure, to the extent permitted by law, that they are provided information about the offender, including the offender's immigration status and custody status, and that their questions and concerns regarding immigration enforcement efforts are addressed.”
Community ties fray
Advocates for both sanctuary policies and reforms offering a path toward open employment and legal residency, however, say the focus on immigrant crime will harm public safety in the end.
“The cases cited by the administration of violent undocumented offenders are anomalies and clearly used to manipulate public perception,” says Kacey McBroom, a criminal defense attorney and partner of the Los Angeles-based law firm Kaedian LLP. “That said, speaking from within the trenches as someone with a great deal of experience at the intersection of immigration and criminal law, I can tell you this for sure: if [we] don't offer sanctuary policies, we'll see more crime, less cooperation from immigrant communities, and ultimately jail and prison crowding even greater than what we already have.”
As immigrants become more afraid to send their children to school, seek health care, or cooperate with police, many say, established community ties become more difficult to maintain.
But there is also a fundamental disagreement about the focus on crimes committed by unauthorized immigrants.
"The Trump administration is amplifying a myth that has long been used to justify immigration law and policy — namely, the notion that people without documentation are inherently crime-prone,” says Jamie Longazel, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Dayton in Ohio, and author of “Undocumented Fears: Immigration and the Politics of Divide and Conquer in Hazleton, Pennsylvania.” [Editor's note: The original version misstated the title of the book.]
"But in setting after setting, researchers have found that immigration, documented or not, does not increase crime,” he says. “In fact, the opposite is true: places with high immigrant populations tend to be quite safe.”
Last month, two new studies buttressed such claims. A study by the libertarian CATO institute released found that undocumented immigrants are 44 percent less likely to be incarcerated, and that legal immigrants are 69 percent less likely than native-born Americans to end up in prison.
The left-leaning Sentencing Project also found that immigrants, regardless of legal status, do not have higher crime rates than native-born citizens. It also found that increased immigration may be one factor in record low US crime rates, noting that violent crime fell by nearly half at the same time the foreign-born population had more than doubled.
Researchers at the Center for Immigration Studies, however, point out that advocates selectively define “serious crime.” “[Those] supporting illegal aliens have insisted for years that they obey the tax laws, as demonstrated by the fact that they pay Social Security payroll taxes on income they have unlawfully earned,” wrote Ronald Mortensen, a fellow at the D.C.-based center.
“Of course, the only way the vast majority of illegal aliens can pay payroll taxes is by using fraudulently obtained Social Security numbers, and in many cases, the stolen identities of American citizens,” he continues. “These actions are felonies.”
Many unauthorized immigrants do resort to such fraud. The Social Security Administration estimated that about 1.8 million immigrants were working with fake or stolen Social Security cards in 2010.
Marcía knows this happens a lot, though he has not done that. “It’s hard when you’re illegal,” he says. “There’s work, but because of your illegal status, you’re obligated to look for false documents. I know that’s not right.”
'Go back where you came from'
In Nicaragua, Marcía was an attorney and substitute judge. He once represented American clients seeking to recover property confiscated by the Sandinista regime in the 1980s, he says. But when the Sandinistas returned to power in 2007, he was, in effect, blacklisted, and was no longer able to practice, or even find work.
So after obtaining a tourist visa in 2008, he stayed in New York. Before becoming an office clerk, he worked construction for a while, washed dishes, and cleaned and picked up towels at a gym – sending a lot of his earnings back to his daughters back home.
A mutual friend introduced him to Charlene last year, and their common Pentecostal faith and Nicaraguan heritage led to courtship and marriage. The couple now hopes to make a family petition to attain his legal status, and are listening as a Catholic Charities attorney is conducting a “know-your-rights” session at the Manhattan office.
Still, just last week a person on the subway had told him “go back to where you came from,” and a co-worker at his office had also told him he didn’t have a right to be here.
“Even though this country is a country of opportunities,” Marcía says. “I can’t recommend that anyone come here illegally. It’s just too hard now. People now do not accept you.”