As someone who has long supported a major overhaul of our immigration laws, I'm sorry to say that President Obama's call this week for new legislation will only make matters worse. With unemployment hovering at almost 10 percent, the country is in no mood to increase the number of legal immigrants or temporary workers in the U.S. And short of doing so, we cannot fully solve the vexing problem of illegal immigration. But an open and honest debate on immigration is difficult with so much disinformation on the issue circulating.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, for example, made the outrageous claim recently that "we all know that the majority of the people that are coming to Arizona and trespassing are now becoming drug mules. They're coming across our borders in huge numbers." But the facts don't bear her out. So let's examine some of the facts:
Illegal immigration is down, not up. Since mid-decade, illegal immigration at the Mexican border has declined drastically. Border apprehensions -- one of the most consistent and accurate measures of illegal traffic -- are at a 35-year low, down 54 percent since 2005. The peak period of illegal immigration -- 1995-2000 -- coincided with a major expansion in the U.S. economy, with jobs plentiful. Indeed, the 2008 recession and slow recovery have been as big a factor as beefed-up border security in drastically reducing illegal immigration.
Illegal immigration has not led to an increase in crime, nationally or in the communities in which large numbers of illegal immigrants reside. The popular perception that illegal immigration equals increased crime is one of the most persistent reasons many fear that illegal immigration is causing untold hardship to Americans. But the facts don't bear out the fears. Crime in the U.S. has been declining consistently over the last two decades, even while illegal immigration was increasing.
According to the latest FBI Uniform Crime Reports, overall crime declined nationally for the 16th straight year, with violent crime down 5.5 percent in 2009 And the figures for Arizona -- ground zero in the immigration debate and the state that experiences the largest influx of illegal immigrants into the U.S. -- show that violent crime has been falling steadily and is lower now than at any point since 1972. In Phoenix, violent crime declined by about 10 percent.
Half of the 10 lowest-crime big cities in the U.S. are in Border States: El Paso, San Jose, Austin, San Diego, and Los Angeles; and two others, New York and Denver, are home to large illegal immigrant populations as well. The crime statistics for El Paso are perhaps the most surprising. The city is the second-safest big city in America, according to FBI data, with a population that is 82 percent Hispanic, including nearly 30 percent who are immigrants, many of them illegal. What's more, El Paso sits just across the river from one of the most dangerous places on the planet, Ciudad Juarez. The drug-cartel crime that has driven murders in Juarez to make it the murder capital of the world -- an appalling 242 in May alone -- has not spilled over onto the streets of El Paso, however.
The U.S. Border Patrol has more resources than ever, and patrolling the Mexican Border is far safer than most law enforcement jobs. There are now more than 20,000 Border Patrol agents, making the agency the largest law enforcement contingent in the federal government. According to a Customs and Border Protection study obtained by the Associated Press through a Freedom of Information filing, violent attacks against Border Patrol agents declined in 2009, and attacks against agents are far lower per capita than those against police officers and sheriffs, 3 percent compared to 11 percent, with the attacks against border agents consisting mostly of rock-throwing while gun and knife attacks were the predominant assaults against police.
These facts don't justify ignoring illegal immigration or pretending that there aren't costs associated with it. Every nation has the right -- and obligation -- to protect its borders. We must secure the U.S. border, but pretending that illegal immigration is fueling a crime wave or is at historic highs is just plain wrong.