Does Immigration Increase Gang Activity?

This is a partial transcript from "The O'Reilly Factor," August 17, 2004 that has been edited for clarity.

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JOHN KASICH, GUEST HOST: Hispanic immigration is being blamed for a dramatic increase in gang violence in the United States. But is it fair? Joining us now from Irvine, California is Heather MacDonald, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute (search) and contributing editor to their magazine City Journal — from Washington, Brent Wilkes, the executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens (search).

Heather, tell us about the extent of this problem. And are you focusing on Hispanics when other ethnic groups have the same sort of gang problems?

HEATHER MACDONALD, MANHATTAN INSTITUTE: Well, the increase in gang crime that we've seen over the last couple years, John, is quite dramatic. From 1999 to 2002, there's been a 50 percent shoot-up of gang crime nationally. And that is driven by one factor and one factor only, which is the spread of Hispanic immigration from the Southwest of the country north and east.

You have communities that have never had gang violence before, such as the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, that are now seeing murders and mayhem. Many communities are banning machetes because they've been used for such horrific acts like, recently, an 18-year-old member of the Mara Salvatrucha (search) gang, who tried to cut off the hands of a rival South Side Locos member.

There's no question that all ethnic groups commit crime and certainly, African Americans have a high crime rate. But at this point, our immigration policy is not just a national security issue bringing in terrorism, but it's also bringing in domestic criminals and I think it's something we seriously have to reconsider.

KASICH: Brent, let's get your point of view on this. You know, it appears to be, with a 50 percent increase in gang violence among this group, a serious problem. What's your take on this?

BRENT WILKES, UNITED LATIN AMERICAN CITIZENS: Well, it is a serious problem, no question about it. It's something that needs to be addressed and we think there are some very good solutions to intervening and preventing gang violence. What we wholeheartedly disagree with is the idea that it's connected to immigration in the way that Heather is trying to do.

In fact, we think the main problem with the current immigration policies we have is that we have not legalized the status of up to 10 million immigrants that are here in an undocumented status. And because...

KASICH: Well, wait, Brent, so what you're suggesting is the answer to this is to take people who came here illegally and make them citizens or make them legal residents?

MACDONALD: Can I respond to that?

WILKES: No, let me finish my statement. If we had a policy that allowed people to work legally and have an orderly process for immigration, instead of being illegal — that's the current system, they're illegal and they're working illegally — that drives them toward under the cover activities, including violence and gang activity. We think if it was a process where they could work in legal professions that that would greatly reduce the incidence.

KASICH: We've got your point, got your point. Heather, is there a difference between Hispanics who are here legally versus illegally? Do you see any distinction?

MACDONALD: No, there's not, John. That is simply an absurd bootstrapping argument of the Hispanic advocacy groups to basically destroy our border control. What we are seeing as well is second and third generation Hispanics who, by definition, are American citizens, because of our birthright citizenship law here, they are joining gangs at increasing rates.

I've had reports from Chicago that recruitment starts as early as nine-years-old. You talk to people in Washington, D.C., they say for every kid we can get out of a gang, two or three more take their place. And again, this is not just a phenomenon of illegal aliens. The idea that people are doing gang violence and cutting off each other's hands because they're not making enough money is absurd.

This is a problem of culture. And somehow, until we can figure out how to assimilate immigrants upwards rather than downwards, I do think we need to reconsider our border policy.

KASICH: OK, Heather, my take on that is you don't teach a kid right and wrong by rewarding somebody that broke the immigration laws. But nevertheless, we'll leave that argument there. Brent, look, there does appear to be a problem with rising pregnancy rates among teens, a breakdown of the family. Are we having a problem in our Hispanic families or does this story sort of exaggerate that?

WILKES: Well, the story does exaggerate the extent of this problem. But there is a problem with rising teen pregnancy rates and the breakdown of the family, something that LULAC is seeking to address. We've got lots of strong programs to help build traditional values and families to keep people together, to help create positive activities for these young folks to be engaged in instead of gang violence.

We're just opening up a whole new set of community technologies, for instance, to give people something to do after school so that they can be positively engaged. Heather can't have it both ways. She says, on the one hand, it's an immigration problem and then she says it's not an immigration problem. What is it?

KASICH: Well, I'll tell you what. We're out of time. I want to say this to you. Regardless of what's causing it, we've got a problem. It's pretty apparent. We've got to figure out how to fix it, and it begins with strengthening that family, Brent. And maybe we can have both of you back to talk about this as we move forward. Thank you very much.

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