Opinion: Despite perceptions, crime in border areas, including Arizona, mostly down

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Before and after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed the state’s new law to crack down in illegal immigration, we heard the rhetoric about crime and the Grand Canyon State. ‘We cannot sacrifice our safety to the murderous greed of drug cartels,” Brewer said last month when she signed SB 1070 into law.

Well, as so often happens with immigration -- not to mention Arizona -- the reality is complicated and nuanced. It’s true that Phoenix has experienced a spike in kidnappings, thanks to the warring cartels. In an eye-popping article last year, our colleague Sam Quinones described the troubling trend in a report from Phoenix:

Arizona has become the new drug gateway into the United States. Roughly half of all marijuana seized along the U.S.-Mexico border was taken on the state’s 370-mile border with Mexico. One result is an epidemic of kidnapping that many residents are barely aware of. Indeed, most every other crime here is down. But police received 366 kidnapping-for-ransom reports last year, and 359 in 2007. Police estimate twice that number go unreported.


But in an equally eye-popping report, another Times staffer wrote recently that “by many measures, Arizona has become safer since illegal immigrants began pouring into the state in the 1990s.” Staff writer Nicholas Riccardi added:

Crime has dropped all across the country since then, but the decrease has been as fast or faster in Arizona. The rate of property crimes in the state, for example, has plummeted 43% since 1995, compared with 30% nationwide.

Then on Friday’s front page (remember front pages?) Riccardi reports that crime has dropped along the entire U.S.-Mexico border. This isn’t to say crime doesn’t exist. But in many places it has hopscotched the border area itself, as Riccardi notes:

But a review of crime statistics for the largest communities and interviews with law enforcement officials from Texas to California show that, despite a widespread perception that the violence in Mexico has spread north, U.S. border communities are fairly secure. Some have even become safer. ‘It’s not spilling over to our side of the border,’ said William Lansdowne, police chief in San Diego, where violent crime has dropped 8% in the last three years. ‘We police it really well.’

Which all goes to show that, as is so often the case with immigration and politics and crime, perception is a powerful thing.

-- Steve Padilla

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