Crime and Immigration Reform

We do need comprehensive immigration reform.  And, like all other areas of public policy, change must be based on facts, not propaganda, if it is to bring real improvement.  Many misconceptions are circulating regarding crime as it relates to illegal immigration or immigration reform.  In this article, I focus just on crime and will address other issues regarding immigration reform in subsequent articles.

Anti-immigrant groups claim we on the border are suffering a violent crime wave caused by illegal immigration.  It’s just not true.  The FBI reports that the top 4 safest cities in the country are San Diego, Phoenix, and two Texas cities, El Paso and Austin. San Diego, with 1 in 4 residents an immigrant, has the lowest per capita violent crime rate.

While Arizona Governor Brewer claimed a dramatic rise in crime, the FBI reported that violent crimes in AZ actually decreased by more that 30% in the last two decades. In Texas, the violent crime rate dropped 10% from 1998 to 2008; the property crime rate dropped from 12% over the same period.  And a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said, “The border is safer now than it’s ever been.”

Part of the reason for misperception about border crime is the increased violence in northern Mexico. In an attempt to link the two separate issues, AZ Governor Brewer claimed that most undocumented immigrants were involved in drug dealing. Simply NOT true! The violence in Mexico is the drug cartels at war with each other and with Mexican authorities.  It’s an entirely separate issue from immigration and cannot be addressed by changing immigration laws.

Furthermore, there are good reasons why immigrant communities across the nation have been found to have lower overall crime rates than citizen-dominated communities and why immigrants tend NOT to engage in criminal activity.  Think about it:  If you were a foreigner in this country, working, perhaps tending a family, what would you do?  Wouldn’t you avoid calling attention to yourself and avoid contact with law enforcement for fear of deportation?  That’s just what they do.  As a result, incarceration rates among young men are lowest for immigrants.

For the purpose of drumming up fear of immigrants, the xenophobes claim that we risk terrorists coming across the border intent on doing us harm.  Again this defies logic and known facts.  Most terrorists who have acted or attempted to act in this country were either US citizens or came here legally.  Here in Brewster County, Texas, where I live, law enforcement spotted one person with such potential – a US citizen who came here from the “interior,” not of Mexico, but from the USA, apparently scouting a location for a training camp.  Those with terroristic intent are seldom going to place themselves at risk of apprehension which crossing the border without documentation involves.  We do, of course, need to be watchful at our borders for terrorists, but don’t be thinking that Mexican workers are equivalent to al queda.  They’re not.

Immigration gets lumped in with the drugs and terrorism for two reasons.  First, US Customs and Border Protection enforces violations of all three.  Second, anti-immigrant groups actively seek to demonize immigrants by associating them with drug dealers and terrorists.  These separate issues need to be addressed by different policies.

There are some areas of crime that ARE related to illegal immigration:  Vandalism and house break-ins in border-adjacent areas, human trafficking, the misdemeanor crime of entering the country without approval, and hate crimes.  The first three of these crimes can be reduced if we provide a way for people to legally enter this country at appropriate crossing points to work, shop or visit.  In a good system, the origin and destination of the entrants would be known to authorities and a network with employers established.

The failure to implement such a system creates the market for human trafficking just like drug prohibition creates the drug market, cartels and violence.  And the inability to enter at legal entry points sends entrants across the land and strips them of resources, which motivates theft and break-ins of private property.  Finally, instead of administering a less expensive system of legal entry and accountability, we are wasting federal dollars in court hearings, deportations and incarcerations.  This cruel system tears apart families and causes death and injury.

The last category of crime related to the issue of illegal immigration is hate crimes directed at immigrants and at citizens who even look like immigrants.  These crimes are rising dramatically.  And beyond reported crimes, there are the countless occurrences of verbal attack, discrimination, etc., that Hispanic people increasingly suffer.  The lies and exaggerations such as those addressed above that demonize and dehumanize immigrants are part of that harassment.

And so are laws such as Arizona’s, which draw local agencies into enforcement of federal laws.  Based on, as we’ve seen, inaccurate claims of rising crime rates, the Arizona law will do NOTHING to reduce crime at all.  Read it and you will see it has no mechanism to reduce crime since it’s supposed to be used only after some crime has occurred.  It will cost local and state governments dearly and draw their attention away from truly serious crimes.  It places a barrier between immigrants and law enforcement because, for fear of arrest, they will not report crimes or seek help when needed.  It leaves men, women and children open to abuse they dare not report.  And, for the first time in history it requires US citizens who simply look like undocumented immigrants to carry papers proving their “innocence.”  This in a land where we’re all assumed innocent until proven guilty.

The 14th Amendment to the US Constitution applies to EVERYONE, citizen, non-citizen, documented or not, when it says, “… nor shall any State deprive any PERSON of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any PERSON within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

We need comprehensive immigration reform to put an end to harassment of Hispanic immigrants and citizens, to save lives and to preserve families.

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