On a bright day in late January, hundreds of Tucsonans gathered to wish Gabrielle Giffords well as she left town to rehabilitate from a bullet wound to the head, while hundreds more gathered to mourn the death of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry, who was gunned down in the line of duty.
Within a few days, Shawna Forde went on trial for the crime of orchestrating a double-murder that included the execution of a 9-year-old girl in Arivaca. And the still-unsolved murder of Cochise County rancher Rob Krentz continues to cast a pall nearly a year after it occurred. These sensational, tragic events have helped to fuel a growing public perception that our border region is rampant with crime and violence.
The problem with this perception is that it has little to do with reality. By any measure, the national hysteria regarding the "invasion" of our borderlands by big brown bogeymen from the south is nothing more than politically charged hot air.
In a calculated public-relations maneuver, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano chose El Paso, Texas, as the site for a major speech on the matter, a place recognized by crime statisticians as the safest large city in the country. You read that correctly—right across the river from Ciudad Juarez, the most dangerous city in Mexico, you'll find the safest city in the United States. As Secretary Janet noted, El Paso is no exception; San Diego and other border cities rank near the top as well. Overall, crime in the border region has been stable or falling since the mid-1990s; violent crime in particular has dropped 30 percent.
Even Border Patrol agents who work in the so-called invasion zone are far safer than the average cop on the beat. Agent Terry was the first in 12 years to die in the line of duty, and just the 10th in the past century—only three of whom were murdered. Meanwhile, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, on average, a police officer is killed in the line of duty in this country every other day. Eleven were shot in one 24-hour period last month. Some quick math, allowing for the larger sample size—900,000 police officers of various stripes versus 21,000 Border Patrol agents—indicates that it's at least 30 times safer to work at keeping the peace on the border.
Why the false perception? The reaction to Krentz's murder is instructive. In the immediate aftermath, Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever—long a loud voice among the "border invasion" brigade—blamed the crime on an illegal immigrant. Despite the absurdity of Dever's claim that his officers were able to track the suspected perpetrator from the site of the crime more than 20 miles back to the Mexican border in a single night, and notwithstanding later corrective statements that the investigation was focused on a suspect located in the United States, most news stories referencing the crime continue to slavishly repeat Dever's unsubstantiated assertion.
Even if Krentz were killed by someone crossing the border illegally, according to the Border Patrol, he would have been the first American citizen in the busy Tucson sector in 10 years to suffer such a fate. In fact, immigrants—including those who are undocumented—commit crimes at a rate that is a small fraction of that of U.S. citizens. This is due at least in part to the fact that immigrants risk much more than the usual fines or jail time associated with a crime: They also risk deportation and the loss of their American Dream. Given that more than 2,000 undocumented migrants have perished chasing that dream across the border, and many thousands more are targeted by smugglers and bandits every year, they are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators.
Simply put, "spillover violence"—as defined by craven politicians and talk-radio blowhards—is a myth. But if you want to talk about the thousands of guns, billions of drug-purchasing dollars, and militaristic interdiction strategies that spill over the border from the United States and fuel violence toward Mexicans, you might start to make some sense.
Unfortunately, bad policy follows false perception. A small border town in California, desperate for an economic infusion, recently agreed to host a $100 million "drug-war garrison," one focus of which will be the deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles—infamously known as "drones"—along the border.
Considering that one of these little beasties already crashed in somebody's backyard in El Paso a couple of months ago, maybe it is only a matter of time before the safest city in America—and the border region it's a part of—become a lot less safe.