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How Immigration Crackdowns Backfire

The trouble with Arizona's draconian new law

Steve Chapman
April 22, 2010

Arizona legislators are fed up with being terrorized by illegal immigrants, and they have passed a law to get tough. Under the measure, passed this week and sent to the governor, police would have to stop and question anyone they suspect of being in this country without legal authorization.

The bill passed after the fatal shooting of Robert Krentz, a 58-year-old rancher whose killer apparently entered illegally from Mexico. Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu says police are also under siege: "We've had numerous officers that have been killed by illegal immigrants in Arizona."

Even Sen. John McCain, once a supporter of immigration reform, has called for the immediate placement of 3,000 National Guard soldiers along the border.

It's no surprise that Arizonans resent the recent influx of unauthorized foreigners, some of them criminals. But there is less here than meets the eye.

The state has an estimated 460,000 illegal immigrants. But contrary to myth, they have not brought an epidemic of murder and mayhem with them. Surprise of surprises, the state has gotten safer.

Over the last decade, the violent crime rate has dropped by 19 percent, while property crime is down by 20 percent. Crime has also declined in the rest of the country, but not as fast as in Arizona.

Babeu's claim about police killings came as news to me. When I called his office to get a list of victims, I learned there has been only one since the beginning of 2008—deeply regrettable, but not exactly a trend.

Truth is, illegal immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native Americans. Most come here to work, and in their desire to stay, they are generally afraid to do anything that might draw the attention of armed people wearing badges.

El Paso, Texas, is next door to the exceptionally violent Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and easily accessible to illegal entry. Yet it is one of the safest cities in the United States.

In 2007, scholars Ruben Rumbaut and Walter Ewing investigated the issue for the Immigration Policy Center and concluded that "if immigrants suddenly disappeared and the country became immigrant-free (and illegal-immigrant free), crime rates would likely increase."

That's not to say Arizonans don't have a right to be upset when Mexicans trespass across private land on a regular basis. But you could solve that problem by making it easier for them to immigrate legally.

It's also worth remembering that this used to be a rare phenomenon. What made it common was not a new avalanche of people coming to the United States without permission. It was a federal offensive to intercept them in major border cities where they used to arrive.

"Closing the old entry points diverted them into places which didn't have many undocumented immigrants before," Princeton University sociologist Douglas Massey told me. Instead of sneaking into San Diego or El Paso, they are prone to entering somewhere else—often in the Arizona desert, where the chance of being caught is lower.

Turning the border into a 2,000-mile replica of the Berlin Wall may sound like a simple cure for the problem. But besides being hugely expensive, it would have effects the advocates would not relish.

How so? Massey says the number of people coming illegally has not risen appreciably in the last couple of decades. But the number staying has climbed, because anyone who leaves faces a harder task returning.

Had the government not cracked down at the border, he says, "the undocumented population would be half what it is now." A fence intended to keep illegal immigrants out is serving beautifully to keep them in.

Assigning local police to enforce federal immigration laws would also have unhealthy side effects. The Major Cities Chiefs Association, representing 56 police departments, says it hinders law enforcement by deterring members of immigrant communities from cooperating with cops.

Last year, Police Chief George Gascon of Mesa, Ariz., (now chief in San Francisco) told a congressional committee that in some cases, this approach "is setting the police profession back to the 1950s and '60s, when police officers were sometimes viewed in minority communities as the enemy."

If there is anything we've learned about getting tough on illegal immigration, it's that it rarely works as intended. Like punching a wall, it may feel good for a moment, but it hurts a lot longer.

This column first appeared at Reason.com.

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