Michael Stafford is a 2003 graduate of Duke University School of Law and a former Republican Party officer from Delaware. His writing has been featured on national and local blogs such as FrumForum, The Cagle Post, and TommyWonk. He is the author of An Upward Calling: Politics for the Common Good on the need for public policy, and politics, to advance the common good.
The rationale for Arizona’s SB 1070, the state immigration enforcement statute passed in 2010 that is now being copied by other states such as Alabama and Georgia and championed as a cause célèbre by many on the Right, was based on a simple premise, namely, that Arizona was experiencing a surge in violent crime fueled by unauthorized immigrants.
The link between unauthorized immigrants and crime is one of the most persistent myths in the immigration debate. But the facts tell a very different story, even in Arizona and along the Mexican border.
Crime rates in Arizona have been falling for years; indeed, Arizona’s border counties have some of the lowest per capita crime rates in the nation. More broadly, two of our nation’s safest metropolitan areas- San Diego and El Paso, are border cities. Indeed, by any objective measure, the southern border is in fact safer now than it has been in decades. There is no immigrant-fueled crime wave.
The Wild West?
Listening to some politicians and members of the conservative entertainment complex last year, one got the impression that our southern border was descending into a state of near anarchy and chaos. That we were being subjected to a waive of violent crime fueled by unauthorized immigrants. That we were under siege. That we were facing an “invasion.”
Consider: Radio host Michael Savage informed his listeners in that, “[w]e need to get our troops out of Iraq and put them on the streets of America to protect us from the scourge of illegal immigrants who are running rampant across America, killing our police for sport, raping, murdering like a scythe across America while the liberal psychos are telling us they come here to work.”
Savage’s remarks echoed comments made a few years ago by a co-founder of the vigilante group called the Minutemen, Chris Simcox. Speaking at a rally in 2005, Simcox said that National Guard troops were needed to “clean out all our cities and round them up…They have no problem slitting your throat and taking your money or selling drugs to your kids or raping your daughters, and they are evil people.”
Bill O’Reilly on Fox News also got into the act. In his mind, a clear link existed between rising crime and the need for Arizona’s SB 1070. Here is a mere sampling of some of his remarks from his television show concerning the (alleged) immigrant-fueled crime waive that swept Arizona:
May 3, 2010: “Arizona had to do something. In the capital city, Phoenix, crime’s out of control.”
May 4, 2010: “The Arizona authorities say we’re desperate. We don’t have the money. Our crime problem is through the roof. Phoenix one of the most dangerous cities in the country. We got to do something.”
May 6, 2010: “So the state of Arizona faced with an overwhelming crime problem, social chaos and a bankrupt treasury had to do something.”
Arizona’s Governor, Jan Brewer, when signing SB 1070, claimed that the measure was necessary because of a “crisis (of) border-related violence and crime due to illegal immigration.” Subsequently, Governor Brewer also said that Arizonans “are out here on the battlefield getting the impact of all this illegal immigration, and all the crime that comes with it.” In other interviews, Brewer opined that most unauthorized immigrants were connected to the illegal drug trade and that “[o]ur law enforcement agencies have found bodies in the desert either buried or just lying out there that have been beheaded.”
Taken together, these claims painted a picture of Mexican-style cartel violence, crime, and chaos pouring across the border. They painted a picture of a crisis situation.
And they were demonstrably false.
Was there an unauthorized immigrant fueled crime waive of epidemic proportions sweeping Arizona and the southern border? An objective review of crime data demonstrates that there was not. Moreover, this is also the view of local law enforcement leaders quite literally on the “front lines” of Governor Brewer’s “battlefield.”
According to Customs and Border Protection spokesman Lloyd Easterling, “the border is safer now than it’s ever been.” And the border isn’t just safe for, well, the border. Crime data actually shows that the Arizona counties along the U.S.-Mexican border are some of the safest places in America!
How safe is the border? A 2006 report from the U.S./Mexico Border Counties Coalition noted that crime had dropped 30% overall since 1990 in the counties along the border; property crimes were down 40% over the same period. The report also notes that the border counties’ violent crime rates are among the lowest in the entire nation. Based on this data, if the border counties constituted their own 51st state, then they would rank 16th in overall crime rate nationally. This is remarkable given the relative poverty of the border counties compared to other areas on the nation. Again, if they constituted a 51st state, and if San Diego was excluded, they would rank last in the nation in per capita income. In other words, it is an impoverished area with low crime rates- particularly, low violent crime rates. That is a remarkable contrast to the inflammatory rhetoric about the border one hears in the media. (As an aside, this report, although somewhat dated, provides a wealth of information on our border communities on a range of subjects- I encourage readers of good will interested in learning the truth about this diverse and fascinating area of our country to read it in full.)
More recent crime data shows that crime in the border region, and in Arizona, has continued to decline. According to a June, 2010 report from the Associated Press:
“The top four big cities in America with the lowest rates of violent crime are all in border states: San Diego, Phoenix, El Paso and Austin, according to a new FBI report. And an in-house Customs and Border Protection report shows that Border Patrol agents face far less danger than street cops in most U.S. cities.”
According to crime data from the FBI for 2009, Arizona experienced a significant decline in violent crime, including in its southwest border counties. Indeed, those same Arizona counties on the Mexican frontier have some of the lowest per capita rates of violent crime in the entire nation. Overall, crime rates in Arizona have been dropping steadily since 2002.
Nogales, a city bisected by the border into Mexican and American halves is an emblematic example of these broader trends: “In 2000, Nogales, Ariz., experienced 23 rapes, robberies and murders. Last year , after 10 years of population growth mostly through illegal immigration, there were 19 such crimes. Aggravated assaults dropped by one-third. There have been no murders for more than two years… So much for the immigration-created crime wave.”
The view for the front line
Presumably, local law enforcement officials would have been in the front line of any immigrant fueled crime epidemic. Given this fact, their opposition to SB 1070 was a telling indictment of the law.
For example, consider the opinion of Pima County (Arizona) Sheriff Clarence Dupnik. As a law enforcement official near the border, Sheriff Dupnik must have been at the very epicenter of Governor Brewer’s “crisis;” he must have had a front row seat from which to witness the day to day impact of Michael Savage’s illegal immigrant scythe sweeping across the nation. And yet, according to Dupnik, “[t]his is a media-created event.. I hear politicians on TV saying the border has gotten worse. Well, the fact of the matter is that the border has never been more secure.” (emphasis added). To his credit, Dupnik was an outspoken opponent of SB 1070, calling the bill, “one of the worst pieces of legislation I’ve seen in 50 years. [It’s] racist, disgusting and unnecessary…” (emphasis added).
And Sheriff Dupnik wasn’t alone in his views. Another border Sheriff, Tony Estrada, from Santa Cruz County, was of the same opinion. Estrada has over four decades of law enforcement experience. In his words “there’s no crisis here.”
Given these facts, it’s not surprising that the Arizona Association of Police Chiefs was an outspoken opponent of SB 1070- hardly the position one would expect from local law enforcement if, to paraphrase Bill O’Reilly’s reasoning, the measure really was a response to the pleas of embattled local law enforcement.
And what about Governor Brewer’s talk of cartel-style beheadings out in the desert? It’s pure fantasy. A local media survey of county coroners, including ones from along the Mexican border, failed to unearth a single instance of beheading. As the report notes (in a rather understated fashion) “[t]hese statements are significant because their offices would have investigated and known about any violent deaths.” The beheaded bodies, then, were are in Governor Brewer’s imagination; they weren’t out in the Arizona desert.
According to University of Colorado Sociology professor Tim Wadsworth, historically, rhetoric associating immigrants with crime “has been a center point of anti-immigrant discourse since the 1880s.” These claims are the myths, the axioms, that, for some, inform the entire immigration debate. By this I mean, they are taken, or assumed to be true without question or investigation, and despite the absence of empirical data validating the underlying assertions.
These myths are dangerous ones. Dangerous in the sense that they dehumanize individuals. Dangerous in the sense that they create an unwarranted, baseless, climate of fear. Dangerous in that they encourage vigilante activity. Dangerous in that they tear communities asunder. Dangerous in that they inhibit honest discussion and debate.
The evidence shows that there is no epidemic of violent crime along our side of the southern border. It isn’t a battlefield; it is not sinking under a tidal waive of crime and chaos; immigrants aren’t an invading horde, a veritable scythe of parasitic deviant criminals bent on plundering us. They are, instead, what they have always been- human beings, just like you and I, seeking freedom, opportunity and a better life for themselves and their families.
And people of good will should question the motives of our myth-makers; of those who would create climates of fear- panics- that have no objective basis in fact.