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Joe Arpaio’s bright idea

The Arizona Republic

There is, of course, a wide range of passionately-held opinions about the enforcement actions of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas regarding illegal immigration.

This column has generally applauded their efforts, except for roundly condemning Arpaio’s immigration sweeps as a gross violation of foundational American principles.

However, Arpaio and Thomas also are doing something that should be universally appreciated, although it won’t be: They are systematically tracking illegal immigrants as they move through their part of the criminal justice system.

The relationship between illegal immigration and crime is hotly debated.

But thus far, it hasn’t been based on much, because virtually no criminal justice agencies were trying to ascertain the immigration status of those who passed through them.

In April 2007, Arpaio began checking the immigration status of those booked in his jails.

The Department of Homeland Security estimates that there are 530,000 illegal immigrants in Arizona. That would make them about 8 percent of the state’s population. In fact, Arizona has the highest concentration of illegal immigrants of any state in the country.

Since it started doing immigration status checks, the sheriff’s office found approximately 15 percent of those booked in the jails were illegal immigrants.

Thomas recently released a report saying that 22 percent of those convicted of felonies by his office during 2007 were illegal immigrants.

So, according to Arpaio and Thomas, illegal immigrants in Maricopa County represent a much higher percentage of the criminal class than they do of the general population.

These findings fly in the face of the bulk of the social science literature that maintains illegal immigrants aren’t more inclined to criminal activity than is the general population, and, in fact, is probably less so.

For example, a study in February by the Public Policy Institute of California got a lot of attention. It found that, while the foreign-born constituted 35 percent of California’s population they were only 17 percent of California’s prison population.

Another widely cited study by the Immigration Policy Center, “The Myth of Immigrant Criminality,” found that, for the country as a whole, the incarceration rate for the foreign-born was considerably less than that of those born in this country.

These and other studies also point out that crime rates have fallen while immigration has increased, and fallen more in cities with greater immigration increases.

There is a common flaw in these studies: They combine the legal and the illegal immigrant populations, looking at the foreign-born as a whole.

That’s because, as mentioned, virtually no criminal justice agencies systematically try to determine and track immigration status.

It’s clearly possible to posit that disproportionate lawfulness by legal immigrants may mask disproportionate unlawfulness by illegal immigrants.

DHS estimates that about 38 percent of the foreign-born in the United States are illegal immigrants. California has an unusually high rate of legal immigrants. Based upon the DHS figures, less than 30 percent of that state’s foreign-born population is illegally in the U.S.

The opposite is true for our state. Again, based on the DHS estimate, 57 percent of Arizona’s foreign-born population is here illegally. The Center for Immigration Studies pegs it even higher, 65 percent – the highest in the country.

So, what does it mean if illegal immigrants commit crimes at rates less than, equal to, or more than their percentage of the population?

Not as much as either side of the debate believes.

The overwhelming majority of illegal immigrants come to this country to work, not to steal.

After all, those convicted of felonies in the Thomas study constitute less than 2 percent of the estimated illegal immigrant population in Maricopa County.

Moreover, the highest disproportionate criminality is found, unsurprisingly, in activities associated with living in this country illegally. For example, 85 percent of those convicted of false identification were illegal immigrants. The rates of elevated representation were milder in offenses such as burglary (11 percent) and robbery (13 percent).

Now, Arpaio and Thomas have an agenda, and many will question the validity of their statistics.

The answer is for all criminal justice agencies to do what Arpaio and Thomas are doing, and routinely check and track the immigration status of those going through them.

After all, it is better to know than to guess.

Robert Robb, an Arizona Republic columnist, writes about public policy and politics in Arizona. He can be reached by e-mail to robert.robb@arizonarepublic.com.


8 Percentage of people in Arizona who are illegal immigrants.

15 Percentage of illegal immigrants in Maricopa County jails.

35 Percentage of people in California who are foreign-born.

17 Percentage of people in California prisons who are foreign-born.

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