Migrant crime, national issue, local reality Republicans have raised the alarm about a migrant crime wave. Nationally, crime is down even as immigration has surged, but the concerns are real in some neighborhoods.

Migrant crime is politically charged, but the reality is more complicated

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're hearing border stories on MORNING EDITION. Immigration - it's a big election year issue, one of many we're exploring in our series We, the Voters. So this week, we've met a migrant family crossing the border and a border agent trying to secure it. We've explored the legal status of a Venezuelan migrant and the strains on a city sheltering migrants.

Today, we try to get at the reality of migrants and crime. Republicans have highlighted incidents like the murder of nursing student Laken Riley. Georgia this week indicted a Venezuelan man for that crime. Democrats have said such stories demonize migrants. So what do you find if you visit a single neighborhood that is rich in immigrants? NPR's Martin Kaste went to New York City.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: If you're looking for evidence of a crime wave driven by recent migrants, you won't find it in the national statistics. Violent crime has been coming down for the last couple of years, even as immigration has surged. But if you zoom in on specific neighborhoods, the picture gets more complicated.

This part of Jackson Heights in Queens has long been very Latin American, the kind of place where you can go all day without having to speak English. Within steps of the subway, you can find Colombian-style breakfast, a Brazilian steak place and Mexican fruit smoothies served from a food truck. And the neighborhood has become a magnet for many of the 190,000 migrants who've come through New York in the past two years.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Singing) ABC.

KASTE: The biggest group are Venezuelans. A half-dozen kids play on the sidewalk under the weary eye of a mother leaning on a stroller. Her daughter is the one selling candy.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: For $1.

KASTE: One dollar for a paleta?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Yes. One, two, three, four, five.

KASTE: But as these newcomers have settled in, there have been tensions, especially with people who've been here longer.

CARLOS CHAPARRO: (Speaking Spanish)

KASTE: Unfortunately, crime is up, says Carlos Chaparro, standing at the door to his storefront school, which teaches how to do jobs such as construction zone flagger. He says his students are getting mugged coming out of night classes. You hear similar stories up and down Roosevelt Avenue, and it's reflected in the statistics.

JOHNNY VELASQUEZ: It happens a lot. It happens a lot.

KASTE: Johnny Velasquez is just coming home from his night shift as a security guard. Like Chaparro, he says there's been a lot more theft in this neighborhood lately, especially the grab-and-run kind.

VELASQUEZ: It's an everyday thing. People on the scooters driving by while you're on your phone, they'll take it. Every day, you walk here, you don't know what's going to happen.

KASTE: And he's just seen it happen just now. Police have arrested a man for trying to steal a backpack. The suspect is still just a few feet away, resisting the cops' efforts to stuff him into the backseat of their squad car.

UNIDENTIFIED THIEF: No. I'm not going back to jail. No.

KASTE: But in this case, the suspect is American. It's the victim who's a migrant, a young man from Ecuador, who's talking to the cops as he bleeds from the hand. And that's the thing about this uptick in local crime - it's hard to separate out if the migrants are responsible or if crime is going up because the new arrivals make such tempting targets.

JACK DONOHUE: They come. They find the neighborhoods where their languages are spoken and there may be acculturation that they can engage in. But they're brand new.

KASTE: Jack Donohue is senior fellow at Rutgers University's Center on Policing. He has 32 years experience in the NYPD. He calls the jump in crime in that Jackson Heights neighborhood substantial, but he says you can't automatically blame the migrants.

DONOHUE: It's a question of what's happening and dissecting it, and not just the occurrence, but who's getting arrested for it would shed a little bit of light on what dynamics are in play there.

KASTE: The available statistics don't shed much light, though, because most crimes aren't tracked by immigration status. Police analysts say you could get an indirect sense of whether newcomers are committing more crimes by looking to see if there's been an unusual jump in first-time arrestees, people new to the system and perhaps new to the country, but New York state doesn't track that, and if NYPD does, it's not sharing those numbers publicly. Neither the department nor the mayor's office would talk to NPR for this story. Meanwhile, the question of migrant crime in New York has become politically charged.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER #1: There was another brutal migrant attack on New York City's finest. A group of Venezuelan migrants were caught robbing a store last...

UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER #2: Governor Kathy Hochul says she's certain there should have been jail time for the migrants caught on camera.

KASTE: Most alarming, though, are the dire news stories about a violent new gang.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER #2: This as New York City officers were warned this week, Tren de Aragua is expanding its ranks in the city.

KASTE: Tren de Aragua is a Venezuelan prison gang that's spread to other South American countries, and there have been reports of migrants with the gang's tattoos here. But Steven Dudley says the gang itself is still just a phantom in the U.S. Dudley co-directs InSight Crime. It's a think tank focused on groups like this.

STEVEN DUDLEY: You may see individuals connected to Tren de Aragua that may commit crimes on their own, but that doesn't mean Tren de Aragua as a criminal organization is operational in the United States.

KASTE: And if you ask Venezuelan migrants about Tren de Aragua, they say they've heard about it, but usually just on Spanish-language TV. They're usually more worried about plain old street crime.

KASTE: Carolina Reyna, for instance - she lives in a migrant shelter in Manhattan, where she's just stepped outside for a late-night smoke. Bored young men hang around the entrance, but she feels safe here because there's always a police car. She used to work in a bar in that Latin American neighborhood of Queens, but she says she won't go back there anymore, not since she was mugged.

CAROLINA REYNA: (Speaking Spanish).

KASTE: "The boy stabbed me on the left side in the breast," she says. She says the kid had an Ecuadorian accent, and police told her there's security video of the attack, but since February, the case has gone cold.

CHRISTOPHER FLANAGAN: You know, making cases against the migrants, it's just very frustrating.

KASTE: Christopher Flanagan was NYPD's commander for major cases, and he still talks to current detectives. He says they get precious little information about migrants' criminal records back home, and suspects rarely have a mugshot.

FLANAGAN: And then if you do have someone you're able to identify, you don't have any associates. With people who are here long-term, you might know who they live with, and you have none of that data with the migrants.

KASTE: Privately, police say this is the real migrant crime problem. It's not that the migrants commit more crime. In fact, past studies have shown that immigrants commit fewer crimes. But when they do commit crimes, especially the new arrivals, they're simply harder to catch and prosecute. And no one's more frustrated about this than Jose Villalobos. He says any migrant who breaks the law makes things harder for the people like him.

JOSE VILLALOBOS: (Speaking Spanish)

KASTE: "You have to enforce the law against them," he says. Back home, Villalobos used to work for the central bank, calculating the inflation rate until political pressures forced him out. Now he sells snacks from under a tent draped with a Venezuelan flag. When it comes to his countrymen here in New York, he says they're getting a bad rap.

VILLALOBOS: (Speaking Spanish)

KASTE: "People say, here come the criminals, but no, we're not all like that. We've come to work and do good, and, like with any country, we have good people and bad," he says. And then he adds that he personally wants to do the best he can in a country that's opened its doors to him.

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