Crimmigration in Gangland: Race, Crime, and Removal During the Prohibition Era

37 Pages Posted: 8 Aug 2019

See all articles by Geoffrey Heeren

Geoffrey Heeren

University of Idaho College of Law

Date Written: October 1, 2018


In 1926, local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities in Chicago pursued a deportation drive ostensibly directed at gang members. However, the operation largely took the form of indiscriminate raids on immigrant neighborhoods of the city. Crimmigration in Gangland describes the largely forgotten 1926 deportation drive in Chicago as a means to augment the origin story for “crimmigration.” Scholars up until now have mostly contended that the convergence of criminal and immigration law occurred in the 1980s as part of the War on Drugs, with crime serving as a proxy for race for policy makers unable to openly argue for racial exclusion of Latino immigrants in the post-civil rights era. Drawing on original archival research, this article traces those roots back much further, to the Prohibition Era of Gangland Chicago, when they arose in nascent form before being supplanted by the different enforcement dynamics of the Great Depression.

A close examination of the deportation drive of 1926 reveals that immigration enforcement at the time contained most of the elements that scholars today have identified when defining crimmigration: a popular preoccupation with “criminal aliens” and attribution of crime problems to them; local/federal collaboration in immigration enforcement; an increase in the criminal grounds for removal; an increase in the criminal prosecution of immigration issues; and an asymmetrical incorporation of criminal procedures into the world of immigration law.

These phenomena developed for some of the same reasons that crimmigration arose in a more monolithic form in the 1980s, and indeed, paved the way for it. The 1920s, like the 1980s, came on the heels of a massive surge in immigration as well as a shift in the demographics of immigration. Yet both were also periods of relative affluence, during which anti-immigration arguments needed to take a different tenor than the protectionist arguments that prevailed during periods of economic insecurity. Like the 1980s, the 1920s also followed on the heels of a “civil rights era”: the reconstruction period following the Civil War. Arguments that implicated race were couched in scientific terms during this era of scientific racism and eugenics. Adherents of scientific racism pursued a dubious quest to statistically establish that certain racial and ethnic groups, like Sicilians, had a greater propensity for crime. This principle justified not only limited immigration quotas for Southern and Eastern Europeans, but also deportation efforts like the 1926 raids that targeted Italian Americans, whose “whiteness” was in many ways contested at the time.

The 1980s War on Drugs paralleled the Prohibition Era in many ways. One was a return to the focus on crimmigration that developed during the 1920s. Crime served in the 1980s as an effective proxy for race because that linkage had been made so strongly during the earlier period.

Keywords: immigration, crime, crimmigration, alien, non-citizen, deportation, Italian American, eugenics, race

Suggested Citation

Heeren, Geoffrey, Crimmigration in Gangland: Race, Crime, and Removal During the Prohibition Era (October 1, 2018). Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, Vol. 16, No. 1, 2018, Available at SSRN:

Geoffrey Heeren (Contact Author)

University of Idaho College of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 442321
Moscow, ID 83844-2321
United States

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