John Laird is The Columbian's editorial page editor. His column of personal opinion appears each Sunday. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Having been born on the banks of the Rio Grande (Eagle Pass, Texas) and after living 25 years among 2.4 million people in El Paso-Juárez — more than two-thirds of whom speak primarily Spanish — I have acquired a layman’s understanding of international relations. One lesson I’ve learned: Never treat a beehive like a piñata.
Several legislators in Arizona have yet to learn this lesson. They want to require local law officers to enforce federal immigration laws when there is a reasonable suspicion that someone is an illegal immigrant. This law — if and when it’s enacted — will only make things worse. In fact, that’s already occurring. The resulting blend of contempt and chaos is what happens when politicians put on the blindfolds of bigotry and start swinging sticks at beehives. Neither honey nor candy is gathered, only a lot of stings.
Some of us oppose the Arizona law for purely selfish reasons. After all, acting reasonably suspicious is basic to our persona. You can tell by that sneer in the nearby mug shot that I’m up to something, and it’s nobody’s business in Arizona what that something is.
On a more logical basis, many law enforcement officers — and especially their unions — oppose the new law because it imposes new duties on officers with no additional pay.
Still other circling bees are complaining that the law unleashes the sheer meanness that has overtaken desperate people. Why, this law is even too mean for Rick Perry and, trust me, that’s pretty mean. The Republican governor of Texas said Arizona’s law “would not be the right direction for Texas.” He especially doesn’t like using state and local law officers as immigration officials.
Will just one illegal immigrant be deported as a result of this law? Probably not. The only real impact is to stem the tide of legal conventioneers. Even if the law results in one deportation, that person could be back in Arizona within hours. This futility is the result of a partisan, dysfunctional Congress that cannot reform our immigration policy.
Blurring the lines
Small-minded xenophobia and hysterical demonizing are not exclusive to Arizona. These imperfections lurk deep within all of us, and they are triggered by misguided politicians. The worst effect of Arizona’s new law is the way it blurs lines between immigration and the drug war. Many spiteful people assume that, because illegal immigrants have broken one law, they must be bent upon breaking more. So, all of the 460,000 illegal immigrants in Arizona are instantly categorized among the kingpins and runners of the Mexican drug cartel.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer fumed to Greta Van Susteren on Wednesday: “We’ve been inundated by criminal activity.” Politically, who can blame her for making that statement? Indeed, Brewer’s popularity has soared since she signed the bill. But her complaint is factually contradicted by Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune : “Over the last decade, (Arizona’s) violent crime rate has dropped by 19 percent, while property crime is down by 20 percent.”
Another example: Pinal County (between Phoenix and Tucson) Sheriff Paul Babeu recently said, “We’ve had numerous officers that have been killed by illegal immigrants in Arizona.” Chapman responded: “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.”
Furthermore, according to the Immigration Policy Center, “violent crimes in Arizona fell from 512 per 100,000 people in 2005 to 447 per 100,000 people in 2008.” And surprising to many people, “crime rates are lowest in states with the highest immigration growth rates, such as Arizona.” What about El Paso, across the Rio Grande from Juárez, the epicenter of drug-war violence? According to CQ Press, El Paso has risen from No. 3 to No. 2 among America’s safest cities, trailing only Honolulu. Among nine cities with the highest crime rates, not one is within 800 miles of Mexico.
Sadly, statistics are trumped by sheer meanness. Blindfolds will stay in place, sticks will be swung, and countless angry Americans will keep expecting candy to fall from the beehive.
John Laird is The Columbian’s editorial page editor. His column of personal opinion appears each Sunday. Reach him at email@example.com.