Crime Stats Figure In Illegal Immigration Debate

Guest

James Alan Fox, law professor, Northeastern University

The New York Times ran a story claiming that illegal immigration in Arizona hasn't resulted in a rise in crime on the border, but a drop. Blogger Tom Maguire disputed the numbers. James Alan Fox analyzed the data and concluded that crime statistics have no place in the debate over illegal immigration.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Last weekend, The New York Times ran a story that cited FBI's statistics as showing that crime dropped significantly in Arizona since 2000, that despite the perception that illegal immigrants are responsible for increased crime in that state. Then a blogger named Tom McGuire complained that the Times had misinterpreted the statistics. Crime was down in Phoenix, but, he argued, way up in the rural counties along the Mexican border.

On these issues, we often turn to crime expert and Northeastern University law professor James Alan Fox. He took a look at the data, and in a post on his blog for The Boston Globe, he concluded that crime statistics have no place in the debate over illegal immigration.

Well, if you're in Arizona, how does crime figure in to the immigration controversy there? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And joining us now from the studios of the Christian Science Monitor in Boston is James Alan Fox, professor of criminal justice and professor of law, policy and society at Northeastern University. Nice to have you back with us.

Professor JAMES ALAN FOX (Criminal Justice, Law, Policy and Society, Northeastern University): Thank you very much. Nice to be here.

CONAN: And - well, taking - does this seem to be a case of lies, damn lies and statistics? Two different people looking at the same numbers and drawing different conclusions?

Prof. FOX: Well, they were looking at the same numbers. And I do have to applaud Tom for taking up the issue and looking more deeply behind the overall statistics that were in The New York Times article. However, he didn't look at all the statistics. His conclusion, when he broke down the numbers into rural areas, the small towns, the cities, was that crime, indeed, had soared in Arizona outside the major metropolitan areas, about 45 percent in rural counties, for example, and 38 percent in small cities.

Well, trends are more than just two data points. And so, I then went back and looked at the numbers for all the intervening years and saw, indeed, that it was an aberration, that 2,000 - the number used as the base figure - was unusually low. And other than that, for example, for the counties, the trend has been flat. I also looked at 1999 and saw that there was a dip in 2000, and then back to the norm. So there hasn't been this increase.

And the other factor that I looked at was the population changes. There was, interestingly, in the FBI statistics in 2006, a sudden drop in population in the outlying areas of about a quarter to a third. Well, that reflects geographic redefinitions, and it reflects different ways of estimating population. You have to be very skeptical of this kind of statistic based on just two time points when there are so many other factors involved. So, I think in the end, it's not that I don't think that crime is an issue. I don't think fear of crime is relevant to this debate.

CONAN: You don't think fear of crime is relevant to the - one of the major points of the Times article was, in fact, that the perception of crime was outpaced by the reality.

Prof. FOX: Well, it always is. People are driven by what they believe to be true, not necessarily what is true. And statistics, other than what you said earlier about lies, damned lies and statistics - a phrase I detest, being a statistician.

CONAN: Those of us who read history like Churchill a lot.

Prof. FOX: I know. Well, he wasn't very good in math. The thing about statistics and the public is that people tend to sort of their eyes glass - glaze over when they see these statistics.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. FOX: When the FBI reports the numbers, a certain percentage, that makes very little impression. What makes an impression is the 11:00 news, some grizzly story, some high-profile crime, or what happened to their neighbor. So, anecdotal evidence is much more powerful in the minds of people to drive their public opinion than the actual facts.

And the fact is that crime has not increased in Arizona. In fact, it's gone down mostly. And the - and trying to blame illegal immigrants for rising crime crime, just isn't fair.

CONAN: And there are other people, though, who looked at those same numbers - and, again, going back to that original Times' article say violent crime might be down - and this is, again, looking at the numbers for the state overall - but property crime went up. And that might be the kind of crime - it's more common than violent crime - and it might have impact on more people's lives.

Prof. FOX: Well, it could be. Let's all understand, too, that the vast majority of property crimes, about three quarters of property crimes, are low level thefts, thefts involving property worth $10, $25, $50. We're not talking about, necessarily, the most serious crimes as driving public opinion. I don't think people are up in arms about illegal immigration because of a theft of $25. I think when they hear crime they think, my family won't be safe. That's really the issue here, I believe. And that's where this fear is misplaced.

CONAN: And that is - again, going back to the original story in The New York Times, it goes back to Robert Krentz, a rancher, who was shot to death this year on his property near the border with Mexico. Authorities suspect the culprit was linked to smuggling, smuggling either of drugs or of people across the border.

Prof. FOX: Well, very well could be, but, again, that's one case. And we shouldn't be driving public policy on one case even though it's horrific and even though it's high profile.

Let me also point this out as far as statistics. One of the commenters to my blog for boston.com, relayed some data from a Maricopa County report from a couple of years ago about the conviction rates for illegal aliens - illegal residents, I'm sorry.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. FOX: Illegal immigrants and the general population. And what the statistics showed - according to this commenter and I can only take them at face value - was that the rates were somewhat higher - not so much in violent crime, very small difference. But they were higher in drug offenses - that's not a surprise - in some other crimes. But the problem with that statistic is that if you take any population, even red-blooded Americans who are poor, underclass, lack opportunity, you will also find a higher rate of criminality. So it's not really the immigrant status or illegal immigrant status that's behind these higher rates of convictions. It's really the lifestyle, the poverty that this population is coming from.

CONAN: And let's see if we get some callers in on the conversation. And again, we want to hear from callers and listeners in Arizona about how the issue of crime plays out in the debate over illegal immigration in that state. We'll start with Sabra(ph), Sabra with us from Tucson.

SABRA (Caller): Yes, I am.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

SABRA: Well, I've lived on the border in Arizona and then Texas for most of my adult life, and I'd like to make this observation. And that is in all the years I've lived here, migrant workers have never been a problem in terms of safety. Now the problem is that the drug cartels have gained huge control of the border towns in Mexico as well as some of the interior towns like Monterey. And they have become the force that we have to deal with. And they do scare us, all of us, particularly those of us who live near places like Nogales or Reynosa or those towns.

CONAN: And when you - go ahead. I'm sorry, James Fox?

Prof. FOX: Absolutely, you're right that there has been this - this drug war on the southern side of the border and spilling over to the northern side. But that's not the illegal immigrant problem. And what happens is two thing - two things happen at the same time. Well, more illegal immigrants, more crime. Gee, it must be causal. But as you point out, it's not. It's something entirely different going on.

SABRA: That's right. And I hope that, you know, that people in Washington are aware that those of us who live here have lived with migrants all of our lives.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

SABRA: But what wev'e not lived with is the powerful drug cartels that are moving north out of Mexico.

CONAN: Sabra, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

SABRA: You're welcome.

CONAN: Do the statistics, though, show, James Alan Fox, that the drug war is spilling across the border?

Prof. FOX: Yeah. Well, the cases that the caller referred to, yeah, they are. Clearly, the biggest problem is in Mexico. But the drug wars creates - wreaks havoc on the Southwest part of our country, absolutely.

(Soundbite of "Dragnet" theme)

CONAN: What was - that's your - that must be your cell phone.

Prof. FOX: I'm sorry. That's my cell phone which I...

CONAN: Good ringer.

Prof. FOX: ...forgot to turn off.

CONAN: Good ringtone.

Prof. FOX: Yeah, just to facts, "Dragnet."

CONAN: Let's see. We get...

Prof. FOX: And that's why - that's the way I look at it, just the facts.

CONAN: Just the facts.

Prof. FOX: Not the hysteria, not the fear.

CONAN: Christie(ph) is on the line from Eloy, is that right, in Arizona?

CHRISTIE (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

CHRISTIE: I'm actually a law enforcement officer and I work on narcotics. And what I see as a big problem is illegals aren't necessarily coming over here intending to commit crimes. But they're kind of forced into kind of what your guest is saying. They don't have legal options to work. They, you know, start hauling in drugs. They start helping bring illegal across the border. So I do think that once they're over here, they're finding themselves forced in to committing crimes. And another aspect of it is, we don't - law enforcement agencies themselves don't have the ability to identify these people.

CONAN: Right.

CHRISTIE: You know, Border Patrol has fingerprint scanners, whatever. But as a law enforcement officer, you make contact with somebody on a street, they give you one name one day and another name the next day. So it's really hard for us to enforce - for enforcement of illegals because of their ability to switch identities readily without - because they don't have driver's license. They don't have Social Security numbers like legal citizens do.

CONAN: Christie...

Prof. FOX: Let me ask the caller - I'm sorry. Go ahead.

CONAN: Well, go ahead. I had a question for her, too, but you can go first.

Prof. FOX: Okay. Given that you're in law enforcement, I have a question for you. Do you happen to know when and why the Border Patrols first were instituted, both in the Mexican border and the Canadian?

CHRISTIE: No.

Prof. FOX: They were instituted because decades ago, European immigrants - once we cut down on immigration - European immigrants were still trying to get into this country and were trying to do so by going into Canada and Mexico and making their way across these soft borders. And I'm not sure if we look back, that this would've been a ...

CONAN: This would've been...

Prof. FOX: ...big problem of European illegal immigrants.

CONAN: This would have been in the 1920s?

Prof. FOX: A little bit later than that.

CONAN: Okay. Christie, let me also ask you, some might suggest that if you are in this country illegally, almost the last thing you would want to do is attract the attention of the authorities, and committing petty crimes is a good way to do that.

CHRISTIE: All I can tell you is that a large number of people that I've had contact with that have been driving loads of marijuana, and I'm talking thousands of pounds, they are illegal immigrants. They're here in the country illegally and they're involved in these types of crimes.

CONAN: Okay.

CHRISTIE: I can't speak for all illegals. I'm not saying...

CONAN: No, of course not. And, well, Christie, thank you very much for the call, we appreciate it.

CHRISTIE: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about crime statistics and the border in Arizona. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go next to Frank(ph), and Frank on the line from Phoenix.

FRANK (Caller): Yeah. Hi, Neal. A longtime listener, first-time caller. Great show. Thanks for taking me on the air.

CONAN: We'll, thanks for the nice words.

Prof. FOX: Do you only broadcast in Arizona? All your callers have been from there.

CONAN: Well, that's what we ask for, that's what we ask for.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. FOX: Oh, did you? Okay.

FRANK: Your broadcast there, I think there's a time delay for a second. Anyways, my comment is I'm a construction worker. I have been for the last 10 years or so, and I work with - the vast majority of the people on the jobsite, except for myself, are Mexican, are immigrants. And of that, the vast majority are illegals. And I think that it's unfair to say that all crime in Arizona is committed by illegal immigrants because most of the people I have come in contact with, they come across the border just to work.

They want to make a better life for themselves. They want to make a better life for their families here and for Mexico. And the problem with the crime and the illegal crime is the ones down south with the drug cartels. That's where I think the issue is and I think the illegals in general, the ones up here in Phoenix that we see are labeled and targeted because they're an easy target. You know, they live in the barrios. They speak Spanish. They distrust authority, and they're easy to say, they're the root cause of all the crime.

Prof. FOX: Right. We paint them all with a very broad brush. If an illegal immigrant is involved in criminal activity, obviously we punish them for the criminal activity and deport them. If a citizen is involved with illegal activity, we punish them. We don't deport them, but we punish them. But that's true in general. We shouldn't be saying, oh, we're going to have special rules and special hysteria for illegal immigrants because most of them are not criminals, some of them are. But that's true of American citizens as well.

CONAN: Well, there's sort of the original sin argument. They're all criminals because they crossed the border illegally.

Prof. FOX: Yeah, but we all gamble, don't we?

CONAN: Frank, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.

Mr. FOX: May we all - my point is that there is a lot of criminal activity, status criminal activity, that Americans participate in that happen to be against the law, like betting on sports unless you're in Nevada. But people do it. It is illegal. So if you want to call them criminals, fine, call them criminals, but we're not in the practice of locking people up for that.

CONAN: Let's go to Brian(ph). Brian with us from Phoenix.

BYRON(ph): (Caller): Hi, I'm Byron, actually.

CONAN: Oh, excuse me.

BYRON: My comment is, we experience a lot of illegal-related crimes because of human smuggling. And I think, you know, we see drop houses in the news nearly nightly. And I think if we had a better solution, if we addressed the immigration problem in that regard, perhaps we wouldn't see such high levels of human trafficking which includes kidnapping and holding people against their will.

Prof. FOX: Mm-hmm.

BYRON: You know, there's - you're violating human rights by even participating in that.

CONAN: Drop houses, for those who aren't familiar with the term, are sort of holding areas, holding places for people along the various smuggling routes once they're across the border?

BYRON: Correct.

CONAN: Okay. And obviously these are controlled by the same criminal elements who smuggle the people across the border in the first place.

Prof. FOX: And then these are red-blooded Americans, flag-waving Americans who are making a profit off of the backs of these illegals.

BYRON: And I'm not denying that either. But I do think that we are seeing, you know, I'm here at ground zero in Phoenix, in Maricopa County, and we have drop houses where there's up to I think 60 people held at gunpoint without shoes, often zip-tied up because they're here illegally. I mean, if that's not a problem, if that's not a crime, how is that not a crime that is directly related to the illegal immigration problem?

Prof. FOX: But it is. And also by the way, when illegals are victimized by crime, they're typically unwilling to call the police, given it may expose their status of being illegal. So they are subject to all sorts of victimization, not just in the drop houses but elsewhere.

CONAN: All right, Brian, thanks - Byron, excuse me, thank you very much for the call. Appreciate your time today.

BYRON: All right.

CONAN: And James Alan Fox, I want to thank you as well.

Prof. FOX: If I may, I have a new book out. If I could just...

CONAN: I was going to mention it.

Prof. FOX: Oh, go ahead. I'll let you do it.

CONAN: All right. James Alan Fox is Lipman Family professor of criminal justice and professor of law, policy and security at Northeastern University. He writes for the blog "Crime and Punishment" for The Boston Globe, and his new book is "Violence and Security on Campus: From Preschool through College." Thanks very much.

Prof. FOX: Thank you. Any time.

CONAN: And he joined us today from the studios of the Christian Science Monitor in Boston. Tomorrow, the Reduced Shakespeare Company joins us for a live performance in Studio 4A. If you had - planning to be in the Washington area, if you'd like to be part of the studio audience tomorrow, drop us an email, talk@npr.org, put Reduced Shakespeare in the subject line and maybe you'll join us for that broadcast. See you again tomorrow.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News, I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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