By Walter Ewing
The Republican Party primaries in Arizona may be over, but the anti-immigrant demagoguery upon which the winning candidates built their campaigns is unlikely to fade away anytime soon. Governor Jan Brewer and Senator John McCain both managed to reverse their declining political fortunes in large part by raising the phantom specter of immigrant violence—a cynical tactic they are likely to repeat in the midterm elections. For instance, both trumpeted the discredited claim that Phoenix is the number two kidnapping capital of the world after Mexico City, and portrayed their various and sundry proposals to “get tough” on unauthorized immigrants as sincere efforts to save Arizonans from kidnappers and other violent criminals.
What Brewer and McCain neglected to mention in their campaign rhetoric, however, is that unauthorized immigrants are the primary victims of the kidnappings that do occur. As Terry Greene Sterling describes in her book Illegal: Life and Death in Arizona’s Immigration War Zone, most of the kidnapping victims in Phoenix are unauthorized immigrants held for ransom by the smugglers (coyotes) they hire to bring them to the United States. These are “drop house” kidnappings in which “incoming migrants at the border are baited with low smuggling fares. Those low fares are ramped up by thousands of dollars once the migrants are held at gunpoint in a drop house.” Such “drop house” kidnappings are distinct from “home invasion” kidnappings, “in which kidnappers abduct rich individuals, like drug dealers or human smugglers, or their family members.”
Brewer and McCain are also apparently unaware of the fact that rates for both property crime and violent crime (including murder, assault, and rape) have fallen in Arizona in recent years, including in the state’s three largest cities: Phoenix, Tucson, and Mesa. Moreover, crime rates in Arizona border towns have remained flat for the past decade despite the surge in unauthorized immigration. And a 2008 report from the conservative Americas Majority Foundation found that crime rates in general are lowest in states with the highest immigration growth rates, including Arizona.
The truth which Brewer and McCain seem so determined to ignore is that unauthorized immigrants have been driven into the waiting arms of both smugglers and kidnappers by more than a decade and a half of failed border-enforcement initiatives which have been implemented in the absence of immigration reform. Were Congress and the White House to actually reform our immigration system to match reality, unauthorized immigration would slow to a trickle, the market for people smugglers would dry up, and kidnappers would no longer have a large pool of vulnerable immigrants to hold for ransom.
Of course, were that to happen, politicians such as Brewer and McCain could no longer score political points by crowing about kidnapping without mentioning who is actually being kidnapped—or why. Given their successful use of such fear-mongering in the primaries, however, that is unlikely to happen anytime soon.