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Chasing Border Tails

Chasing Border Tails

By Edward Schumacher-Matos - May 28, 2010

WASHINGTON -- A national hysteria seems to be taking hold over violence along our out-of-control border with Mexico, and so I telephoned Mayor Raul Salinas of Laredo, Texas, to ask how citizens there were surviving.

A veteran of 27 years in the FBI, the mayor said he was "really surprised" by President Obama's plan to send 1,200 National Guardsmen to the border. Salinas welcomed any assistance, though he noted that there had been only two murders so far this year in Laredo, and none had to do with smuggling drugs or people.

So I called Efrain Valdez, the mayor of Del Rio, Texas. He chairs the Texas Border Coalition, which includes all Texas border mayors and county judges. "There has been no 'spillover' of violence" in the coalition cities, he reported, and added that his group opposes the new Arizona law requiring local police to question anyone suspected of being an unauthorized immigrant.

I went further down the line and called El Paso, across from Juarez, ground zero for the drug war in Mexico. Mayor John Cook was traveling but issued a statement saying "I do not oppose" sending more National Guard troops so long as they don't "enforce immigration law." This hardly sounded like a cry of fear and desperation. It could be because El Paso last year ranked as the second safest city in the country, after Honolulu.

The Los Angeles Times sent a reporter two weeks ago to Nogales, Ariz., and interviewed its police chief, Jeffrey Kirkham. There had been 120 murders last year across the border in Nogales, Mexico, he said, but not one on the Arizona side in three years.

The police chief in San Diego told the newspaper that violent crime in his city had dropped 8 percent in the last three years.

The story is the same up and down the border. While there is real violence in Mexico, violent crime is low and dropping in American border towns, in the border states and throughout the country. The FBI reported last week that violent crimes such as murder, rape and aggravated assault were down 5.5 percent nationally in 2009 compared to the year before. In Phoenix, it declined a whopping 16.6 percent.

The number of illegal border crossers, meanwhile, is at the lowest level it has been since 1970, in large part because of the increasingly effective enforcement that we have already been putting in place.

Yet some politicians warn, as Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl did in a letter to President Obama last week, of the "escalating violence" on the border. The news media refer to "border violence" and the "spillover" of violence from Mexico as a given, and politically conservative commentators falsely hammer at supposed crime committed by immigrants, conflating the immigration and drug issues.

Not surprisingly, Americans feel insecure. In polls, they overwhelmingly support the Arizona law and demand more action. Like a cat chasing its tail, this has created a vicious cycle in which our political leaders, including liberal Democrats, respond to the public opinion they created by demanding still more border enforcement. Hence the president's latest move.

The new contingent of National Guard, added to the 340 already there, and the $500 million in additional border enforcement funding that Obama announced aren't bad. Guardsmen do not have training in border enforcement, so a force of 5,000 troops sent between 2006 and 2008 largely twiddled its thumbs. But maybe just their presence acts as a deterrent to a possible future "spill."

It is unclear what the funding will be for, but the Texas mayors said it is most needed at official crosspoints -- to stop our guns and money being smuggled into Mexico as much as the illegal traffic coming this way.

To be sure, there are some unique border crime problems, including kidnapping among cartel members in Phoenix, rampant car theft in Laredo and the passage of drugs and migrants through the Arizona deserts.

But what is bad about our obsession with border enforcement is that it diverts attention from real long-term solutions. For illegal immigration, it is comprehensive reform that creates a legal temporary work program, fraud-proof work identity cards, and earned legalization for the unauthorized immigrants here. For drug violence, it is either reducing demand or removing the violent criminal element by legalizing drugs.

Both Democratic and Republican leaders know this. But to say and do it, requires political leadership and bravery. Pandering to the crowd is easier.

Copyright 2010, Creators Syndicate Inc.

Edward Schumacher-Matos

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