One of the big motivating reasons offered to justify the controversial “new” law concerning immigration in Arizona is the fear that undocumented aliens are perpetrating a wave of crime, particularly violent crime, upon hapless Arizonans. The Feds are letting all these criminals in! Burglaries, thefts, rapes, kidnappings, and murders are all used as indicators of the many problems these outlaw border-crossers bring with them.
Well, in one sense of the word, that is undeniably true. A person who is not a citizen of the United States and enters the country for more than a very brief visit without a passport, visa, work permit, or other documentation is violating our laws and by definition is a criminal. And there’s something to be said for such a person — who is already on the wrong side of the law — being impelled into a culture of lawlessness that does, in fact, breed the kind of crime that Arizonans are being told has come to plague their state.
But the signal for the critical thinker to dust off the bullshit meter is the reliance on scare words and anecdotes rather than on statistical data. Because when you look at the statistics, crime is down in Arizona. Overall, from 2004 to 2008, crime went down down by 23% and violent crime went down by 11%. This compared to a population that grew at a rate more than three times the national average and had a higher percentage of young people and a smaller percentage of women than the national average. Of course, Arizona can only take so much credit for this; crime is down nationally and continues to go down. It hasn’t gone away, in Arizona or elsewhere, but there is less of it now than there was five years ago.
Statistics never tell the whole story, but they do frame out the big picture. If you personally are the victim of crime, the statistics don’t matter a damned bit. But laws shouldn’t be made and justified based on anecdotes; ideally they should address real problems. Arizonans have been asked to endorse this law, and have done so, based on the idea that they are under siege by violent criminals. It isn’t true. Not even the bit about the kidnappings — nearly all of them are related to the drug trade, so if you aren’t involved in the drug trade, you aren’t any more at risk of being kidnapped in Phoenix than you are in Minneapolis or Richmond.
Nor is fear of crime the only justification that has been offered for the Arizona law. The other primary argument about minimizing illegal immigration is that undocumented aliens take jobs from Americans legally entitled to work; that they depress wages because they work outside the system and can be paid less than minimum or prevailing wages for the work they are doing; that they do not recycle their money back in to the larger U.S. economy by buying goods and services here but instead remit a substantial portion of their wages back to other countries. There is some meat to each of these economic arguments, and although they are simplistic renditions of a more complex reality, these concepts should be considered, at the Federal level, as part of the suite of issues that should be addressed in immigration policy reform. In my mind, all of these economic arguments suggest that allowing more workers to legally come here and seek work is the right answer.
What isn’t the case is that a spike in illegal immigration has caused a crime wave. The data simply don’t support such a claim.