Strictly Business.

Eugene Robinson’s column, on the facts of Arizona’s “problem” with illegal immigration, is a must-read (and I use that term sparingly):

Border crossings by undocumented immigrants have declined sharply over the past decade. With more Border Patrol agents on duty than ever before, apprehensions of would-be immigrants along the 2,000-mile border have dropped from a peak of 1.8 million in fiscal 2000 to 556,000 in fiscal 2009. Some of the decrease might be the result of tougher border enforcement, but the weakness of the U.S. economy also could be a factor.

There has been much sound and fury about Mexico’s rampant drug violence spilling over into the United States — much of it wrong, at least as far as Arizona is concerned.

[...]

Roy Bermudez, assistant police chief of the border city of Nogales, told the Arizona Republic that “we have not, thank God, witnessed any spillover violence from Mexico.” The newspaper reported — citing figures from FBI crime reports and local police agencies — that crime rates along the border have been “essentially flat for the past decade.” Violent crime is down statewide, as it is nationally.

Most of the “reasonable” support for Arizona’s law has come from conservatives and moderates who claim to “understand why Arizonans feel threatened.” David Frum, for example, began his defense of SB 1070 with this cheerful scenario:

Imagine yourself a landowner in southern Arizona. The border between San Diego and Tijuana is now effectively fenced, so the flow of illegal immigration has been diverted to your front yard. Every morning you wake up to a hillock of garbage: plastic bottles, food remains, human urine and feces. If you try to police your land, you put your life at risk: Last month, Arizona rancher Rob Krentz was murdered on his own property, likely by a marijuana-smuggling illegal migrant.

This is a depressingly familiar narrative: “Illegal immigrants are barely human! They bring crime and degradation into our neighborhoods, and when we try to stop them, they respond with violence! What else would you have us do?” Of course, as Robinson points out, the crime-bearing illegal immigrant is a right-wing fever dream myth. According to FBI uniform crime reports, as well as statistics provided by local police, crime rates in Arizona border towns have “remained essentially flat for the past decade.” In fact, the low levels of violent crime can be attributed to the stepped up law enforcement presence in Arizona border towns. As Robinson notes in the beginning of his column, the border has been secured, at least in Arizona. Indeed, right-wing tales of rampant immigrant violence are grossly exaggerated:

While the nation’s illegal-immigrant population doubled from 1994 to 2004, according to federal records, the violent-crime rate declined 35 percent.

More recently, Arizona’s violent-crime rate dropped from 512 incidents per 100,000 residents in 2005 to 447 incidents in 2008, the most recent year for which data is available.

In testimony to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security last month, Dennis Burke, U.S. attorney for Arizona, noted that Arizona now has more than 6,000 federal law-enforcement agents, with the majority of them employed by the Border Patrol. That represents nearly 10 agents for every mile of international line between Arizona and Sonora.

This makes perfect sense; illegal immigrants are coming into the United States to work, not to cause trouble. Indeed, researchers have yet to find a positive relationship between illegal immigration and higher crime rates. To borrow a bit of Matt Yglesias’ language, the problem with illegal immigration isn’t that people are moving into the United States to work voluntarily in exchange for money — Will Wilkinson makes the good point that labor migration isn’t actually wrong — the problem is that these people are undocumented, which leaves them vulnerable to exploitation, deprives them of needed services and help, and puts downward pressure on the low-wage labor market. The solution isn’t to restrict migration, it’s to systemize it, and make up for the economic losses to low-wage American workers through increased social spending.

Insofar that there is serious violence on the border, it has everything to do with the illegal drug trade, and vanishingly little to do with labor migration. Indeed, smart immigration reform would give the border patrol more resources to stop the far more serious problem of human and drug trafficking. Of course, I’m not sure if facts will be all that helpful in this debate. Of the people committed to spreading the myth of immigrant crime, many are far more interested in keeping brown people out than they are with stopping crime, or creating a decent, humane system.

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Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer for The Daily Beast, and former fellow at The American Prospect and The Nation Institute. His work centers on politics, race, and the intersection of the two. You can find him on Twitter, Flickr, and Instagram as jbouie.

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