Commentary: Better ways to deal with immigration than Arizona's law

Reading about the problems along the Arizona border with Mexico, it's easier to sympathize with Arizona residents and understand why they support the draconian new law that requires police to stop people on "reasonable suspicion" of being undocumented immigrants.

It's still a terrible law, but Arizonans have good reasons to be angry.

Arizona is the biggest gateway in the nation for illegal entry. Hundreds of immigrants flood across the border each day from Mexico and Central and South America. The Border Patrol made 990,000 arrests of illegal immigrants in Arizona over the past three years, an average of 900 a day, but that is only a fraction of those who successfully enter the country.

Arizona is home to an estimated 460,000 illegal immigrants. Hundreds of thousands more have traveled through Arizona to other parts of the country.

Drugs also flow over the border in Arizona. Federal agents seize an average of 1.5 tons a day of marijuana. The government estimates that 60 percent of all the pot that reaches the United States comes through Arizona.

Where there are drugs and immigrant smuggling, there also is crime. Once peaceful neighborhoods are now home to "drop houses" where smugglers keep migrant laborers, stuffed like sardines, their shoes removed to prevent them from fleeing.

Hundreds of members of Mexican crime syndicates operate in Tucson and Phoenix. And U.S. officials fear that the drug war already being waged in Mexican border towns will spill over into this country.

So, what's the solution? One reader called recently to suggest that the federal government erect the equivalent of the Berlin Wall along the border.

In reality, it would require something closer to the Great Wall of China to begin to secure our 2,000-mile border with Mexico. And even if the nation could afford to do that, which it can't, the notion of turning the nation into a walled fortress is unrealistic.

Many more immigrants enter the country with legal visas by airplane than by land. Then they just stay here, melting into the general population.

We also have to consider the dynamics of the border. While parts of Arizona have become central entry points for smugglers, residents of hundreds of towns on both sides of the border have coexisted peacefully and done business for nearly 200 years, passing back and forth across the border practically at will.

One of the big complaints about the miles of wire fence the government has erected along the border is that it prevents American ranchers from watering their cattle in the Rio Grande as they have done for decades.

Finally, fences aren't impervious. People can get over them; people can tunnel under them.

And the so-called virtual fences are even less effective. The cameras designed to spot illegal immigrants can't distinguish between people and antelopes or jackrabbits.

But while the situation in Arizona is dire in some respects, it's actually improving, not getting worse. For example, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics notes that violent crimes in the state fell from 512 per 100,000 people in 2005 to 447 per 100,000 people in 2008, the last year data was compiled.

And, despite the clamor about dangerous immigrants, crime rates are lowest in states with the highest immigration growth rates -- such as Arizona. Crime in the 19 states with the highest immigrant populations dropped by 13.6 percent from 1994 to 2004, compared to 7.1 percent for the other 32 states.

Finally, although the U.S. illegal immigrant population doubled to about 12 million from 1994 to 2004, the violent crime rate nationwide declined by 35.1 percent while the property crime rate fell by 25 percent. So, more illegal immigrants does not equate to more crime.

Critics accuse the federal government of doing nothing about illegal immigration. But there are more Border Patrol officers now on duty than ever before, and heightened enforcement has been a significant factor in reducing the number of illegal immigrants entering the country.

There is no feasible way to seal our borders completely, and we probably wouldn't want to do that even if we could. We want to entice the smartest, most innovative and hard-working people from around the world to come here, become citizens and take advantage of the entrepreneurial opportunities the United States offers.

The best way to make the border safer is to provide a legal way for temporary workers to enter the country without the help of "coyotes" and cartels.

Drugs? We can't stem the flow of illegal drugs unless we do something about Americans' insatiable appetite for them -- or quit the futile and wasteful effort to enforce marijuana laws.

What clearly won't help is Arizona's new anti-immigrant law. Even with a clause requiring "lawful contact" and a "reasonable suspicion" on the part of an officer that a person is in the country illegally, the law is a civil rights disaster.

"Lawful contact" could range from a traffic stop to a citation for littering. It's so broad that police can find a pretext to stop anyone they feel like.

And what exactly is "reasonable suspicion" that someone is an illegal immigrant? The only possible answer is that he or she fits the racial profile. And because one in three legal residents of Arizona is Hispanic, that means a lot of American citizens inevitably will be stopped and forced to show their papers.

That is one sure way to discourage needed cooperation between law enforcement officers and the immigrant community.

It's also un-American. It's reminiscent of Poland under the Nazis, Russia under the communists, South Africa under apartheid. Where are the protesters who hate intrusive government when government employees are empowered to demand proof of citizenship from ordinary Americans?

The nation needs comprehensive immigration reform -- including both better border security and a legal path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants inside the nation now.

What we don't need is a knee-jerk state law that abridges the Fourth Amendment rights of citizens and undermines the effort to maintain a friendly and productive relationship with Mexico.

This is feel-good legislation that does no one any good at all.


James Werrell is the Rock Hill Herald's opinion page editor. He can be reached by e-mail, at jwerrell@heraldonline.com.

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