The 'Dangerous' Border: Actually One of America's Safest Places

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David McNew / Getty Images

A U.S. border-patrol agent on duty near Campo, 60 miles east of San Diego, Calif.

When U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton ruled on Wednesday that key provisions of Arizona's new anti-immigration law were unconstitutional, she could have also declared them unnecessary. That is, if the main impetus behind the controversial legislation was, as Arizona Governor Jan Brewer said when she signed it in April, "border-related violence and crime due to illegal immigration." The fact is, despite the murderous mayhem raging across the border in Mexico, the U.S. side, from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas, is one of the nation's safest corridors.

According to the FBI, the four large U.S. cities (with populations of at least 500,000) with the lowest violent crime rates — San Diego, Phoenix and the Texas cities of El Paso and Austin — are all in border states. "The border is safer now than it's ever been," U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Lloyd Easterling told the Associated Press last month. Even Larry Dever, the sheriff of Arizona's Cochise County, where the murder last March of a local rancher, believed to have been committed by an illegal immigrant, sparked calls for the law, conceded to the Arizona Republic recently that "we're not seeing the [violent crime] that's going on on the other side."

Consider Arizona itself — whose illegal-immigrant population is believed to be second only to California's. The state's overall crime rate dropped 12% last year; between 2004 and 2008 it plunged 23%. In the metro area of its largest city, Phoenix, violent crime — encompassing murder, rape, assault and robbery — fell by a third during the past decade and by 17% last year. The border city of Nogales, an area rife with illegal immigration and drug trafficking, hasn't logged a single murder in the past two years.

It is true that Phoenix has in recent years seen a spate of kidnappings. But in almost every case they've involved drug traffickers targeting other narcos for payment shakedowns, and the 318 abductions reported last year were actually down 11% from 2008. Either way, the figure hardly makes Phoenix, as Arizona Senator John McCain claimed last month, "the No. 2 kidnapping capital of the world" behind Mexico City. A number of Latin American capitals can claim that dubious distinction.

An even more telling example is El Paso. Its cross-border Mexican sister city, Ciudad Juárez, suffered almost 2,700 murders last year, most of them drug-related, making it possibly the world's most violent town. But El Paso, a stone's throw across the Rio Grande, had just one murder. A big reason, say U.S. law-enforcement officials, is that the Mexican drug cartels' bloody turf wars generally end at the border and don't follow the drugs into the U.S. Another, says El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles, is that "the Mexican cartels know that if they try to commit that kind of violence here, they'll get shut down."

Which points to perhaps the most important factor: the U.S. has real cops — not criminals posing as cops, as is so often the case in Mexico — policing the border's cities and states. Americans and Mexicans may call their border region "seamless" when it comes to commerce and culture, but that brotherly ideal doesn't apply to law enforcement. That's especially true since state and local police are backed along the border by the thousands of federal agents deployed there. Thus the tough Arizona law — which seeks to allow local and state police to check a person's immigration status, a provision that Judge Bolton agreed opened the door to racial profiling by officers, and requires immigrants to carry their documents at all times — was sparked by largely unfounded fears.

Arizona law-enforcement officials say they believe the Cochise County rancher, Robert Krentz, was killed by an illegal immigrant — perhaps a coyote, or migrant smuggler — or a drug trafficker. His last radio transmission home as he inspected his property indicated he was helping a struggling person he believed to be one of the migrants who regularly trespass private land while crossing into the U.S. But while such assaults are hardly unheard of along the border — and while it's hardly irrational to worry about Mexico's violence eventually spilling into the U.S. — they have hardly risen to a level that justified the draconian Arizona bill. (In fact, if an illegal immigrant did murder Krentz, it would be the first time in more than a decade that a migrant has killed an American along the border's Tucson, Ariz., sector.)

"There's a real disconnect between emotions and facts when it comes to the border," says El Paso city councilman Beto O'Rourke. "You've got a lot of politicians exploiting this fear that the Mexicans are coming over to kill us."

The Arizona law, which Judge Bolton also said infringed on federal jurisdiction, may be a product of border bluster. But it has more than succeeded in getting Washington's attention. Even though the Obama Administration was one of the plaintiffs in the suit against the law, the President is sending 1,200 more National Guard troops to the region this weekend. What's more, our broken immigration system — and the federal government's feckless failure to address it — is a front-burner issue again.

The nation's border is actually a safe place. The nation's debate about it, at least politically, is anything but.