Illegal trafficking in both people and narcotics is a problem plaguing the Arizona border. It’s why the Obama administration pledged 1200 National Guard troops near the border. And supporters of SB 1070 would have you believe that it’s a crime wave tied to scores of illegal immigrants. Not so fast.
Violent crime in Arizona, and other states that have a significant immigrant populations, has been consistently on the decline, especially recently. For example, after a spike in 2006 and 2007, the number of violent crimes reported in Phoenix dropped to 10,465 in 2008 and to 8,730 in 2009. That decrease even includes murder. In 2006 Phoenix had a murder rate of 234. That dropped to 167 in 2008 and 122 in 2009 despite the consistent uptick in violence across the border and more concentrated trafficking networks. But supporters of SB 1070 swear the illegal immigrant community is overwhelming local law enforcement resources. What can explain these numbers?
Phoenix law enforcement chalks the drop up to their concerted efforts to connect and work with the immigrant communities–a task they claim will be made much more difficult by SB 1070. According to Phoenix Police Chief Jack Harris, the new immigration law “takes officers away from doing what our main core mission is, and that is to make our community safe, and instead tells us to become immigration officers and enforce routine immigration laws that I do not think we have the authority even to enforce. If you want to keep preventing violent crime, you do not waste your limited manpower on job-seeking “illegals.’”
Phoenix is not alone in witnessing a drop in crime while immigration surged. El Paso, Texas remains one of the safest cities in the country with only 12 murders last year, despite the fact that right across the border a drug war rages in Juarez, Mexico. San Antonio has witnessed a similar drop, while a city like Detroit that is not a hub for job-seeking immigrants has watched crime, particularly violent crime, continue to climb.
And what about the rancher Robert Krentz, murdered by a suspected illegal immigrant in March? As reported by the Arizona Republic and according to Arizona Border Patrol, Krentz is “the only American murdered by a suspected illegal immigrant in at least a decade within the agency’s Tuscon sector, the busiest smuggling route among the Border Patrol’s nine coverage regions along the U.S.-Mexican border.”
This data, compiled independently by both the F.B.I. and the University of Colorado-Boulder shows that, contrary to political rhetoric from the right, immigration, and even illegal immigration, does not make communities more dangerous. The research, which appeared in a peer-reviewed paper in the June 2010 issue of Social Science Quarterly, specifically avoids mistaking correlation for causation, instead providing the most compelling data to date to back up claims that the anti-immigration sentiment in this country is rooted not in fact but simply in fear.
The data is even more compelling than simply rebutting the ideological argument that immigration is connected to crime. The evidence suggests that immigration appears to make the cities immigrants call home safer. According to Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson, that’s because immigrants often move into neighborhoods abandoned by locals and often have tighter family structures which can stabilize urban neighborhoods on the brink.
And a crack-down in immigration may just have the opposite effect, much to the dismay of SB 1070 supporters. Law enforcement officers like Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck notes that when immigrants fear being arrested for immigration offenses they stop cooperating with law enforcement. These communities will withdraw further into themselves, making those immigrant ghettos ripe for exploitation and abuse and further marginalize, rather than integrate, immigrants into the American experience. Not only does this make getting information more difficult for law enforcement, it increases the amount of crimes law enforcement needs to respond to.
These law enforcement officials also emphasize that creating a strategy to deal with the real problem of the trafficking network along the border is a very different thing than dealing with illegal immigrants. Oftentimes those immigrants are victims of that network rather than perpetrators, another fact obscured by those championing the new immigration measures.
This is where the rhetoric on this issue needs some clarity and it needs some change. Let’s distinguish between job-seekers and traffickers, employers and exploiters, and really take this issue head on. That means talking about cheap and easy guns from the United States finding their way into Mexico. It means talking about an American appetite for drugs that fuels cross-border supplies and violence. It means talking about an assumption that strawberries in Minnesota should be available in February and they should be inexpensive–an assumption that fosters cheap agricultural practices and even cheaper labor. It means talking about an American fascination with new construction and an economy propped up by a housing boom–all made possible only through the kind of cheap and expendable labor undocumented workers provide.
And when those like Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer start having that conversation that’s when those of us who oppose SB 1070 will start to believe their efforts are rooted in anything other than fear and anti-Latino bias.
photo courtesy of recursion by recursion via Flickr