Arizona Republic
April 8, 2007

Author: Michael Kiefer, The Arizona Republic Estimated printed pages: 4 (Phoenix, AZ)

Undocumented immigrants are causing a crime wave in Arizona: True or false?

Last year, a national poll indicated that a third of all Americans and 46 percent of Phoenix residents believe that immigrants significantly increase the crime rate.

The perception is that, yes, they are; the truth is, no one is keeping track.

And the only statistics available that single out the immigration status of defendants and criminals -- prison and jail populations, and felonies prosecuted in the county -- suggest that undocumented immigrants commit crimes at a rate virtually proportionate to their numbers in the general population.

There is no question that undocumented immigrants are flooding across the border and that Phoenix's Spanish-speaking population is growing. Illegal immigration is the No. 1 issue for Phoenix residents, according to a 2006 Pew Research Center poll.

The immigration crisis is very real, but it inspires a lot of hyperbole.

And a lot of media coverage:

On Feb. 2, an undocumented immigrant in west Phoenix was charged with stabbing and seriously injuring a man who had just finished a military tour in Iraq. On Feb. 18, a man on a bicycle was run down by an undocumented immigrant in north Phoenix, police say. On Feb. 25, an undocumented immigrant was charged with raping a 6-year-old girl in south Phoenix.

In March, a man accused of kidnapping and assaulting his girlfriend was deported to Mexico right before he could be indicted, but police say he returned to Arizona 11 days later and stabbed his female cousin to death.

Court officials, prosecutors and legislators are quarreling over how to enforce voter-approved Proposition 100, which denies bail to undocumented immigrants accused of serious crimes.

The truth is, as serious as they are, put in a larger news context, many of the crimes would never make it to TV news or see newsprint if they had been committed by legal citizens.

But the hype has reached fever pitch, and radio talk show hosts work themselves into a frenzy on the topic.

They're not alone. One widely circulated e-mail cited the Los Angeles Times as saying that 95 percent of murder warrants and 75 percent of people on the most-wanted list in Los Angeles were undocumented immigrants. "I saw that e-mail, and it's wrong," said Mesa Police Chief George Gascon a former assistant police chief in that city."By and large, criminality of Hispanics in LA is very proportionate to their size in the population," Gascon said.

The same is true for Mesa, he said, where slightly more than half of all violent crimes are committed by Anglos and one-third by Hispanics, roughly proportionate to the population.

Data lacking

Valley police departments don't keep track of the numbers of crimes committed by immigrants, legal or illegal, because they consider immigration to be a federal responsibility. And the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency mostly concentrates on human- and drug-smuggling operations without comparing its notes with law enforcement in general. The courts don't keep track, either.

"We don't know the full dimensions of the problem for what I have called the conspiracy of silence of police forces and other actors in the criminal justice system," Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas said. "A lot of people in positions of authority do not want to know the immigration status of criminals."

Thomas ran for office on a platform of curtailing illegal immigration.
Records kept by his office count undocumented immigrants in 10 percent of all felony cases filed.The numbers of undocumented immigrants in the Maricopa County jails and the Arizona Department of Corrections prisons are also roughly proportional to the population as a whole.

In early March, the Washington, D.C.-based Immigration Policy Center released a study claiming that Mexicans born in Mexico were seven times less likely to be incarcerated than Mexican-Americans.

And aside from their illegal presence, there is no evidence that undocumented immigrants in Arizona commit crimes at a significantly higher rate than any other segment of society.

Last year, the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center polled residents of Phoenix, Las Vegas, Washington, D.C., Raleigh-Durham, N.C., and Chicago on what they saw as their most serious problems. Only Phoenix identified immigration as its biggest challenge, with nearly half the Phoenix respondents saying they felt that immigrants increase crime rates.

The crime rate is stubbornly high here, Thomas said, pointing out that Arizona leads the nation in auto theft and identity theft. "The vast majority of people who are complaining about immigration are doing so for good-faith reasons."Gascon admitted that many seasoned police officers also believe that Hispanics commit a majority of crimes even if the arrest records don't bear that out.

"I think it has to do with human nature," Gascon said. "You have a new group coming in, and it's threatening to others. It has happened with other groups before and will undoubtedly occur at another time."

Battling perceptions

KFNX-AM (1100) Talk Radio show host Charles Goyette has heard the complaints from callers to his show over the years.

"Anybody that's taken phone calls on the radio about these issues will tell you, here's the archetypal story: 'In the 1990s or the 1980s I was doing my trade in home building and I was a craftsman and I was making $18 an hour.
And now I'm happy to make eight.' These are the people who will be most outspoken," he said.

But that may also be a misperception.

The Pew poll indicated that about half of Americans also thought that immigrants were taking jobs -- slightly fewer thought so in Phoenix -- but the Arizona Chamber of Commerce disputes the notion.

"We are at full employment," said the chamber's Jessica Pacheco. "That means that if you want a job you can get one." But the perceptions and misperceptions linger. "You hear over and over again, people who live in neighborhoods in town that have been stable for 25, 30 years, while they've raised their kids. And now they find they're in deteriorating neighborhoods," Goyette said. Immigration activists tell a different story.
"The perception is based on attitudes instead of facts," said Elias Bermudez, president of Immigrants without Borders, an organization that advocates fair immigration reform. Immigrants, he said, are too afraid of being removed from the country if they get arrested.

"Undocumented people, because of the fact that they're undocumented, are less likely to commit a crime, because if they get caught, they're going to end up being deported," Bermudez said.
Edition: Final Chaser
Section: VALLEY & State
Page: B1