Chicago Alderman Works to Remove False Notions About Immigrants and Crime

Raymond Lopez had an unconventional path to becoming a politician. Although he had done get-out-the-vote work as a teenager, Lopez was more inspired by his long-time job working as a skycap for Southwest Airlines at Midway Airport. “I thought people deserved customer service in public service,” says Lopez, whose great-grandfather arrived in Chicago from Mexico as an undocumented immigrant 80 years ago. “All those years being around people and helping them shaped my mindset. When I ran for office, I focused on commitment to customers, and I won the election in 2015.”

Today, Lopez is alderman of the 15th Ward in Chicago’s Southwest Side, which encompasses the neighborhood of West Englewood and the mostly Latino areas of Brighton Yards and Back of the Yards. “Back of the Yards is still an immigrant gateway, and the concentration of undocumented immigrants is higher here than anywhere in the rest of the city,” says Lopez. He was the first Mexican-American to be elected in a neighborhood that is predominantly African American.

I don’t want to go down in history as having stood silent when I had the opportunity to do something.

Lopez has found a calling that benefits constituents in all the neighborhoods he represents. He is lobbying the Chicago Police Department to pare down the rolls of people suspected of gang violence. “Some rightfully belong on this list, but there are thousands of people who might have ended up on it because of who they know,” he says. “In this community, you can be on this list because your brother or father was a gang-banger or because you share the address of someone else the police came looking for and (they) saw you sitting on the stoop.”

Both African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately represented in the nation’s jails, serve longer sentences than their peers, and are more likely to be searched by police during traffic stops. Undocumented immigrants are also unfairly stigmatized as criminals, reports the Center for American Progress, an independent nonpartisan policy institute. Contrary to popular rhetoric, undocumented immigration is not linked to a spike in U.S. crime rates. Between 1990 and 2013, a period when the number of undocumented immigrants more than tripled, the rate of violent crime in the U.S. fell by 48 percent.

Just because undocumented immigrants may come into contact with people involved in gangs, does not mean that they are in the gangs themselves, Lopez says, adding that immigration authorities should not be able to use this kind of information to expedite deportations of innocent people.

Lopez is an advocate of immigration reform that would create a pathway for citizenship for the 11.4 million undocumented immigrants who are currently living in the United States. “My goal is to ensure that the immigrants who came here have the same opportunities that led to the success I have enjoyed, no matter how they got here,” says Lopez. “We’re seeing hurtful rhetoric against immigrants. I don’t want to go down in history as having stood silent when I had the opportunity to do something.”

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New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…