Immigration and Ignorant Voters

One of the striking things about the immigration debate is the disconnect between public perception of the immigration situation and objective reality. A recent poll found that 59 percent of respondents consider illegal immigration to be a “very serious” problem. A majority of those polled expressed support for Arizona’s draconian immigration law, and a whopping 66 percent of voters said they wanted to see immigration laws in general enforced more strictly.

We can’t ask these respondants what kind of “very serious problems” they had in mind. But undoubtedly one of the concerns is the widely-discussed fear of a crime wave fueled by illegal immigrants. The violence across the border in Mexico is frequently cited as a focal point for concern, and when illegal immigrants do commit crimes here in the US, people like Bill O’Reilly exploit it to whip up anti-immigrant sentiments.

The problem with the “illegal immigrant crime wave” story is that it’s not reflected in the data. The Wall Street Journal recently reported falling crime rates across Arizona (and nationwide):

In Phoenix, police spokesman Trent Crump said, “Despite all the hype, in every single reportable crime category, we’re significantly down.” Mr. Crump said Phoenix’s most recent data for 2010 indicated still lower crime. For the first quarter of 2010, violent crime was down 17% overall in the city, while homicides were down 38% and robberies 27%, compared with the same period in 2009.

Arizona’s major cities all registered declines. A perceived rise in crime is one reason often cited by proponents of a new law intended to crack down on illegal immigration. The number of kidnappings reported in Phoenix, which hit 368 in 2008, was also down, though police officials didn’t have exact figures.

My colleague Dan Griswold has more on the non-existent immigrant crime wave. So does Adam Serwer, who also corrects the misperception that the federal government has failed to take decisive action to stop illegal immigration. In reality, deportations have been rising rapidly for the last decade, with the Obama administration deporting more than twice as many people in 2009 as the Bush administration did in 2002:

And that was on top of dramatic increases in immigration enforcement in the late 1980s and 1990s. As Griswold noted way back in 2004, we had at that point already quintupled spending and tripled personnel at the Mexican border. Whatever else you might say about our immigration policy, it certain hasn’t lacked for law enforcement resources.

This reminds me of a conversation I had a few months ago with a family friend who told me she was very concerned about the problem of illegal immigration. The strange thing was that she was awfully vague about the exact nature of the problem as she saw it. She said she actually had a good experience a few years ago when she had two different teams work on a construction project. She found the Hispanic team (some of whom may have been undocumented) were both harder-working and more competent than the native-born, unionized crew they replaced. And she said she felt sympathetic to workers who wanted to come here to find opportunities they couldn’t get at home.

She seemed really surprised when I pointed out to her that it’s basically impossible for an unskilled Hispanic immigrant to get permission to work here if he doesn’t have family connections. She said that if this were true, then the law needed to be changed to give people currently here illegally a path to legalization. Which is, of course, precisely what the 2007 immigration bill was about.

Now obviously, I shouldn’t read too much into a single anecdote. This family friend is a well-educated and liberal minded person; no doubt some of the poll respondents were animated by darker motives. But a lot of the support for the “enforce the law” position seems to be driven by voter ignorance. Immigration opponents like Lou Dobbs have painted an inaccurate but compelling picture of lawless immigrants and a passive federal government. Countering that impression, and helping voters understand that we’ve created a legal system that puts many foreign-born people in impossible situations, is crucial to building support for reform.

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26 Responses to Immigration and Ignorant Voters

  1. Erich says:

    Right on Tim! Thanks for this.

  2. Nelson says:

    The ignorance is willful. Try posting a defense of open immigration on a conservative website and watch what happens.

  3. Rob says:

    My problem with illegal immigration is not that illegal immigrants are a major source of crime (they’re not, in the big picture) or that they take jobs away from Americans (if you can’t compete with largely uneducated immigrants who don’t speak English well, you have bigger problems than immigration).

    My problem is that it’s illegal. No first world country tolerates illegal immigration the way we do (a half million deportations a year is a sign of the magnitude of the problem, not a measure of success against millions of illegals).

    I have two friends who are legal immigrants and trying to abide by the rules and get citizenship. Their thanks for this is thousands of dollars in legal fees and endless hassle. Why should we let people flaunt the rules and just skate in as they please?

    The US is a country made of immigrants and only a fool would oppose immigration in principle, but it has to be an orderly, legal operation. I wouldn’t at all mind a process where illegal immigrants can become legal, as long as they aren’t allowed to cut in line ahead of people already trying to pursue a legal path. Trying to deport them all is a folly of equal magnitude to turning an official blind eye to the problem.

  4. Rob, I have to say I find this baffling. Do you think these people want to be illegal immigrants? Most of them are desperate for a green card; they just don’t have the resources or the connections to get one. And for many of them “waiting in line” could literally mean waiting for the rest of their lives.

    And I have to ask you: have you ever purchased something from Amazon? If so, did you pay your use tax? If not, you, too are a lawbreaker. And this despite the fact that it’s much, much easier for you to comply with the law than it is for the average illegal immigrant.

    Also, how is your immigrant friend harmed if another immigrant comes here without filling out the appropriate paperwork? And if the paperwork is so onerous that millions of people are unable to complete it, isn’t the solution to fix the rules so that poor, uneducated people have a realistic shot at complying with them?

  5. MarkCh says:

    Do the people who are already in a country have a right, expressed through the government, to say who and how many should be allowed to immigrate? Or are they only allowed to restrict immigration if they can show harm in each individual case?

  6. Nelson says:


    The Constitution allowed the “right” to hold slaves when it was written. That didn’t make slavery good. Nor did breaking various laws by aiding runaway slaves make those lawbreakers bad. Basically, insofar as there is a “right” to be a bigot, being a bigot is wrong and the laws should change to reflect that.

  7. Nelson says:

    To put it more plainly, there is not inalienable right to deny others the rights you have regardless of what the law says. You also have the legal right to make the law say whatever you want. Hope this clears it up.

  8. MarkCh says:

    It clears it up, but then that’s what the whole discussion is about. Tim’s answer to Rob begs the question I raised, which is probably the real source of the disagreement between them. Your point is that any general restriction on immigration is essentially immoral. You can make a reasonable argument for this position, but I doubt that many people will take it seriously.

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