Is Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez a Willie Horton for 2016?
There are some people who would obviously like him to be. The story, which is about an undocumented immigrant who, after having been released from jail, was accused of killing a young woman in San Francisco named Kathryn Steinle, has gone national. And it’s working its way into the presidential campaign. The way the candidates deal with it (or don’t) will tell us a lot about the state of immigration politics today.
It’s important to understand that there’s no consensus even on the right about how much attention to give to Lopez-Sanchez’s case. Most of the Republican candidates are treading carefully. Yet conservative talk radio and Fox News are practically vibrating with delight over this story. When I checked the network’s Web site Wednesday morning, it was the subject not only of the main screaming headline but also of five other written articles and four videos, with more coming all the time.
What does this one case tell us about crime in the United States and our immigration policies? The real answer is not much, because one case is always just one case. We know that as a group, immigrants are much less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. And though the case illustrates an extreme negative consequence that can come from a sanctuary city policy, police in cities with sanctuary policies often argue that they help fight crime by allowing residents of immigrant communities to work with law enforcement without the fear that they’ll be turned over to immigration authorities.
Nevertheless, we’re always looking for individual stories through which we can understand larger issues, and those stories can be used for good or ill. For instance, the case of Ryan White, an Indiana teenager who contracted HIV in 1984, taught the country that AIDS wasn’t just a disease of people who (at the time) were on the fringes of society; after his death in 1990, Congress passed a bill expanding funding for AIDS research and treatment in his name. Then there are stories like Horton’s, which was supposedly about criminal justice policies but was actually just a way for George H.W. Bush to stir up racist fears among white voters in the 1988 election.
If Republican candidates are treading more carefully with regard to this story, it isn’t just because the two cases are different - it’s because there’s serious political danger in trying to make Lopez-Sanchez a reason people should vote against Democrats. Bush’s use of Horton worked by resonating with white voters and didn’t produce any noticeable backlash. But if someone tried to make Lopez-Sanchez the new Horton - a symbol of fear meant to get whites to pull the lever for the GOP - he would undermine the party’s efforts to convince Hispanic voters that whatever the party’s history on immigration reform, it isn’t blatantly hostile to them.
Waldman is a contributor to The Washington Post’s The Plum Line blog, and a senior writer at The American Prospect.