The Common Good

The Myth of Out-of-Control Border Violence

100517_100501-0025-immigration-rallyMy beloved city, Phoenix, is making a fantastic run at being the punch line in the larger immigration drama. I wish we were focused on a less volatile campaign, working toward getting the Olympics or something. But this is our space to occupy as a city, it seems, and as a local church committed to Dr. John Perkins' "radical R's," we embark on a ministry of incarnational accompaniment with our city in all its facets. The future of Phoenix will be the future of Neighborhood Ministries and so we pray and work for a prosperous one.

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When immigration issues swell and throb like they do right now people inevitably talk solutions. I just read Peggy Noonan's latest attempt at a policy prescription in The Wall Street Journal on Saturday. Quickly, she argues that due to vast distrust in government, before any immigration reform plans are laid out, Americans must be assured that the border is secure and safe -- sealed, even -- and only then will other types of solutions be open for discussion.

On its face, I understand why this argument plays well. Few would argue against border security and its logical, pragmatic overtones -- which is why we have been doing so much of it for the last two decades. Spending on the border has increased by over 300% since Simpson and Mazzoli wrote the IRCA of 1986, Reagan's 'amnesty.' Border security is the politically safe territory for all sides; when all else fails, hire more border agents. (We have around 15,000 now.) A great myth inside this debate is that little attempt has been made to secure the southern border. In fact, there are few if any problems inside the larger immigration issue to which we allotted more resources.

"But what about all the violence?" you ask. You read a story about a rancher or a sheriff's deputy being shot. Loss of life is always tragic and these stories are painful, but they are the visible exceptions. Incredibly, the Arizona Republic reported on Sunday that there has not been a single murder in the border town of Nogales, Arizona, for two years! FBI statistics show that crime rates in Nogales, Douglas, Yuma, and other Arizona border communities have remained flat for the past decade. Violent crime nation-wide dropped 35% between 1994 and 2004, the years unauthorized immigration was at its highest. El Paso, the sister city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, is among the safest cities in the U.S., ranking as high as #2 on one list. This begins to reinforce the narrative that migrants tell: that they are hard-working, law-abiding people and that unauthorized immigration does not correlate to increased violence. In fact, a recent study showed that large migratory populations actually correlated to low levels of community violence. All the fear and rhetoric around spillover from the drug-nonsense is unwarranted. The evidence-based truth: our border is safer than it has ever been.

The missing piece we need to improve border security is to separate the drug-smugglers from the drywall guys, the masons and maids from the cartels and coyotes. Immigration policy and therefore border policy should recognize the difference. Right now these populations are treated the same. Giving the good guys gates to walk through will ease strain on the rest of the system and make catching the bad guys even easier. Again, as many have said previously and repeatedly, these gates and lines and systems for working people to enter the U.S. legally currently do not exist.

This means a discussion around earned and fair legalization is necessary now. Further stalling to deliberate on border security can only be seen as political pandering and avoidance of real problem-solving. Many have said that once the border is secure, a conversation about the people currently living here can take place. My question to them is, "How 'secure' is 'secure enough'?" Does Nogales need to go another two years without a single murder to prove it? Enforcement on its own, in isolation from comprehensive reform, tears apart families in my church and neighborhood. As a youth pastor committed to the Good News in my community, I am going to have problems with that forever. I know others in pastoral ministry will resonate.

Border pontification will not solve this problem. A nuanced conversation about complex public policy will require political leadership that today seems either a distant memory or an impossible dream. But the stories of the families in my church and neighborhood demand it. And so do I.

Ian Danley is a youth pastor with Neighborhood Ministries in Phoenix, AZ.

+Ask the U.S. Senate to pass national immigration reform this year.

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