Friday, September 01, 2006

Migra Matters debunks misinformation from Houston immigration hearing

While I was gone, the blog Migra Matters had a fine post on immigration and crime, reacting to a House hearing in Houston described here by the Houston Chronicle.

Immigrants, especially from Mexico, commit much less crime, statistically speaking, than US citizens, but the Chronicle portrayed a hearing that promoted fear instead of looking at the bigger problems ("House panel hears worries about illegal immigration, crime," Aug. 16).

Whether it was highlighting a gruesome killing by an immigrant or showing video of shootouts in Nuevo Laredo between warring drug cartels, it sounds like the proceedings weren't distinguishing between illegal drug tafficking and immigration, and that's a big mistake. Indeed, those with more nuanced views weren't asked to participate; reported the Chronicle, "mayors from Texas border cities complained during a separate teleconference Wednesday they were shut out of the hearings"

Migra Matters debunks this conflation of immigration and drug violence, citing a report from the Migration Policy Institute that I quoted from in June. According to their study:
the incarceration rate of the US born (3.51 percent) was four times the rate of the foreign born (0.86 percent). The foreign-born rate was half the 1.71 percent rate for non-Hispanic white natives, and 13 times less than the 11.6 percent incarceration rate for native black men

Tellingly, among the foreign born, the highest incarceration rate by far (4.5 percent) was observed among island-born Puerto Ricans, who are not immigrants as such since they are US citizens by birth and can travel to the mainland as natives. If the island-born Puerto Ricans were excluded from the foreign-born totals, the national incarceration rate for the foreign born would drop to 0.68 percent.

Of particular interest is the finding that the lowest incarceration rates among Latin American immigrants are seen for the least educated groups: Salvadorans and Guatemalans (0.52 percent), and Mexicans (0.70 percent). These are precisely the groups most stigmatized as "illegals" in the public perception and outcry about immigration.
Bottom line: undocumented immigrants who come here to work tend to lay low, don't cause a lot of trouble, and don't commit many crimes. Some do, and many of those are serving time in Texas prisons, but immigrants commit crimes at a much lower rate than folks who were born here.

That's a different issue than cartels feuding over lucrative transportation routes - especially I-35 which runs from Laredo to San Antonio, Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth and all parts north. Those battles have turned parts of the Texas-Mexico border into a no man's land where the laws of supply and demand continually, frustratingly trump laws made by Congress, where the black market in people and drugs is giving birth to a "new form of organized criminal activity."

These are complex problems, but very different ones. Immigration is at root an economic issue, while violent criminal gangs are the reason we hire police and give them guns in the first place.

This isn't just an academic argument, it has consequences on the ground. Given the volume of immigration from Mexico, confusing the public safety threat from immigrant workers with that from the drug cartels risks causing law enforcement to focus limited resources on immigrants, who are less of a threat, while diluting efforts to go after the major organized crime syndicates who threaten peace by any measure.

UPDATE: A Migra Matters commenter found this link to testimony (pdf) from the hearing by the Border Sheriffs' coalition. More on that, perhaps, when I get a chance to go through it.

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