Monday, May 03, 2010

How to Increase Crime Through Anti-Immigration Law

In Arizona, one of the central arguments for the new immigration law SB 1070 is that illegal immigrants commit more crimes in the state than other residents.
State Rep. John Kavanagh, a co-sponsor of the law, said of illegal immigrants, "They bring a lot of crime with them."
As proof, proponents of the law point to a few cases of violent crimes committed most likely by drug smugglers (who, by the nature of their trade, are unlikely to be permanent "immigrants"). The level of violence associated with Mexico-US drug trade is mind-boggling. The increase in violence in northern Mexico has on several occasions spilled over into the US. If one wishes to stem that violence, however, it has to be understood in the complex context of poverty and of the global drug trade, Mexico as producer and transit country, the US as mass drug consumer, and the failed War on Drugs policy.

I guess proponents can believe that targeting illegal immigrants in Arizona might do something about violence in the state. Believing does not make something so, of course, despite the current trend in some sectors of US politics to craft an alternative to this 2500 year-old epistemological truism. But violent crime in general has decreased in the state at a rate higher than the decrease in the national average during a period in which the rate of illegal immigration is thought to have increased; statistical data reveal that "foreign born" residents commit fewer crimes than other residents; and a policy that largely ignores the roots of human trafficking and the broader drug trade is unlikely to get very far in decreasing the small percentage of violent crime actually committed by illegal immigrants.

Opponents of the law contend, of course, that further criminalizing undocumented residents will lead them to avoid contacting authorities about crime that is committed. This echoes the root of violence in the drug trade. Because of the absence of official mediators - police, a judicial system, a regulatory system, some trade dispute entity - in any criminalized activity but most importantly in the drug trade, drug traders resort to violence to resolve disputes. It's almost a cliche to use Prohibition of the 1920s as the representative case, but this is precisely what happened then. Criminalization gave rise to gangs trading in alcohol. Violence rose quickly because there was no other way to resolve disputes. It died down after repeal.

What most in law enforcement here do agree on is that the victims of crime by illegal immigrants tend to be other immigrants. Community activists argue that the new law will make it worse for law-abiding immigrants because few immigrants, whether documented or not, will want to deal with police.

"No one's going to call the cops," said Alfredo Gutierrez, a former state Senate majority leader who opposed the bill. He said law-abiding immigrants of all types were fleeing the state out of fear of being subjected to racial profiling.

"They're getting rid of the folks who would report the crooks," Gutierrez said. "The crooks are staying. This is like heaven for them."

Further, however, SB 1070 proponents point to the relatively higher incarceration rate of illegal immigrants to legal residents as an indicator that illegal immigrants commit more crimes on average. This is the point I really want to address here because it most clearly exposes the fundamental incoherence of this law.

In 2006, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio interpreted a state law making human smuggling a felony as also making it a crime to be smuggled, and he began prosecuting truckloads of illegal immigrants being transported through the state. Arpaio has made catching illegal immigrants a priority.

Gutierrez said he was not surprised to find a greater proportion of illegal immigrants committing crimes. "There's a greater mix of bad folks coming up who don't care if they're caught," he said. And as more law-abiding immigrants fear talking to authorities, the state will become more welcoming to criminals, he said.

Of the lawmakers who warn of illegal immigrants committing more and more crimes, Gutierrez said, "They're creating a self-fulfilling prophecy."

In other words, as a key defense in their arguments, proponents point to the incarceration rate as a supposed indicator of a relatively high crime rate among illegal immigrants. A decreasing incarceration rate is thus implicit in this argument as an indicator of successful policy because this would entail reduced crime, right? By further criminalizing a larger portion of the state population, however, the incarceration rate of illegal immigrants will only increase. The law is thus unsuccessful by its own logic.

Or is concern about criminality the real reason behind the law?

1 comment:

MT said...

There is no reason behind the law, and no reasoning with its proponents, I expect, only advocacy for an alternative remedy for their unease, which we'd do better to leave implicit. I'd advocate for prosecuting the employers of the unpapered, the prosecution of theft and violence and for considering over a trial period if those two measures don't just work wonders, meanwhile sparing children, pregnant women, puppies and kittens a lot of suffering.