Just What -- And Who -- is Behind "The Great Immigration Panic"? You Name It.

The Minuteman Civil Defense Corps sent out a news summary this week with a typically mild and rational heading: “Record High Crime from Illegal Aliens!” Interesting, I thought. Curious to know on what they’d based such Lou Dobbsian fear-mongering, I opened the first link. Behold: A Washington Post story bearing the headline “Immigration prosecutions hit new high: Critics say increased use of criminal charges strains system.” Record high crime from illegals, indeed.

Apparently, the Minutemen missed the fact that far from indicting immigrants for jacking cars, robbing banks or gallivanting around the country killing people, the story describes the controversy surrounding Operation Streamline, a program that allows the government to arrest illegal immigrants for crossing the border, throw them in jail and then prosecute them in the courts. We addressed South Texas’ use of the program in the paper version of Unfair Park earlier this year.

You’d think the Minutemen law-and-order types might be concerned about claims by enforcement officials who say Streamline is swamping the courts and jails and diverting resources from the pursuit of serious crimes like homicide and drug smuggling. As David Gonzales, the U.S. marshal for Arizona, told the Post, "If [Streamline] was all we were doing, that would be fine. But we also have to deal with all other federal prisoners in southern Arizona and all other prisoners federal agencies bring in.” Another source said his officers have been slacking on drug apprehensions.

Of course, if you watch the rantings of Lou Dobbs and the like, you’d think illegal immigrants were killing off scores of hapless Americans each day by infecting them with leprosy (I’m serious) and mowing them down by the millions in drunken car wrecks. The Miami Herald’s Andres Oppenheimer highlights a study by the Media Matters Action Network that says through sheer repetition, "airing dozens and dozens of segments on individual cases in which an undocumented immigrant committed a crime, Dobbs, [Bill] O'Reilly and [Glenn] Beck feed the misperception that these immigrants are responsible for a disproportionate share of crime in America" and spout constant anger, resentment and myths "geared toward creating anti-immigrant hysteria."

Last year, according to the study, Dobbs aired segments linking crime to illegal immigration during 94 episodes of his show, O'Reilly in 66 shows and Beck in 29. Yet a quick review of recent studies shows that link to be tenuous. In February, the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California released this report, which found that immigrants are far less likely than the average U.S. native to commit crime in California.

“Among men ages 18-40 -- the age group most likely to commit crime -- the U.S.-born are 10 times more likely than the foreign-born to be in jail or prison …Such findings suggest that longstanding fears of immigration as a threat to public safety are unjustified.”
In a Harvard study released in March, sociologist Robert Sampson found that immigrant-saturated neighborhoods -- particularly first-generation ones -- have less crime, and that the longer immigrants are exposed to American culture, the more violent they become. Of course, as this Time piece points out, “Whatever the findings of the latest research, it will do little to cool the passions on either side of the issue. When debating immigration … it doesn't matter what the empirical evidence shows; people react with their gut feelings first."

And that’s precisely what’s driving the climate The New York Times editorial board dubs “The Great Immigration Panic.” I can’t possibly make the point as eloquently, but it begins this way: “A nation of immigrants is holding another nation of immigrants in bondage, exploiting its labor while ignoring its suffering, condemning its lawlessness while sealing off a path to living lawfully. The evidence is all around that something pragmatic and welcoming at the American core has been eclipsed, or is slipping away.“ --Megan Feldman

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky