Dickey: Untruths About Immigrants

In the pop-culture category of Funny If It Weren't So Sad, let's nominate the video trailer for a proposed reality show called "Who Wants to Marry a U.S. Citizen?" When I first saw it on the Web, I thought it was a come-on for a lawyer in Alabama who's got a link on the site. Matrimony is a time-honored way for immigrants to win green cards when attorneys run out of options. But the producer, one Adrian Martinez in Los Angeles, tells me he's serious about trying to sell it to cable. "We do not marry anyone, we do not give out green cards, we don't offer any advice on how to obtain citizenship, we don't encourage people to break the law," he says. "We are just a fun dating game show where contestants have multicultural backgrounds."

Well, OK. Although crudely produced, the trailer (which can be seen here or at www.ImmigrantLove.com or www.HookACitizen.com) manages to make an explosive issue seem both benign and banal. "I'm honest. I'm hardworking. I don't have bad habits. I don't smoke. I drink very light," says one contestant. Another tells the would-be bride, gringa that she is, "I just have so much love for the world, and so much love to give to you."

Any antidote to demagoguery in this ugly immigrant-bashing election season, even such silliness as this, gets my vote. But such is the spittle-flecked rage in the United States right now, I don't hold out much hope for the show's future. The reader comments on my recent column "Urban Legends" suggest the tenor of the debate. "California has already been trashed," wrote one. "My only hope is when it is all over, the santa anna whinds [sic] and fire will exterminate that dried up God forsaken area, and those heathens can have it, without water or air."

What unleashed this apoplexy was reporting that first-generation immigrants help make big cities safer. Not only do many studies show striking correlations between rising immigrant populations and declining crime rates, the reasons have been documented for generations. New arrivals have always brought vital hope and energy to American shores, not to mention cheap labor, and that pattern continues whether we are talking about those who enter the country legally or those who do not. A poll released last week by Pew Research shows that almost eight out of 10 Hispanics in the United States think their children will have better jobs and more money than they do.

"What CRAP!" writes one reader, whose text I'm reproducing as it appeared. "Try living in Larado, Tx. and tell me about the low crime rate. The place is like Iraq wit opposing sides armed with machine guns and grenade launchers! Or come to one of the border states and watch as your schools, hospitals, jails, roads and every public place is over-run with non-English speaking, NON-PAYING, mobs!!!!! You are just another 'pointy headed liberal'!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

I presume that this reader and another who wrote about violence in "Nuevo-Loredo" across the Rio Grande in Mexico do not live in either place, since they can't spell Laredo to begin with. But we'll get back to them in a moment.

A constant refrain among people who reject the conclusions of these studies is that "any reporter worth her or his salt should know that correlation can NEVER be assumed to be the same thing as causation." By itself, no, it isn't. But that's not all we're talking about here. Robert Sampson, head of the sociology department at Harvard, has been wrestling with the issue of immigration and crime, as well as the emotional reaction to his studies, for a long time. As he wrote in an e-mail the other day, when people are presented with evidence that immigrants commit less crime, that increasing immigration over time is associated with crime going down, and that "low-crime cities are chock-full of immigrants," they "scream that correlation does not equal causation!"

According to Sampson, "The correct scientific response is to ask why these patterns exist." If, as critics presume and assume, there is a direct causal relationship between immigrants and crime, then there ought to be correlation as well. But there's not. "And causation," says Sampson, "is irrelevant to the factual point that if you want to live in a city with low violence, immigrant cities fit the bill."

And yet—many people are scared. There's not much doubt about that. They're afraid, even terrified, by the wave of new immigrants that began in the 1990s, which is why the debate is so emotional. Even if we put aside for a moment the overtones of racism, there's a concern that new immigrants will somehow change the American way of life, which they will, as immigrants always have.

We're not talking only about Hispanics here, but they are by far the largest group. According to the same Pew survey, there are now about 47 million Hispanics in the United States, or 15.5 percent of the population. They represent the largest minority in the country, and about a quarter of the adults, according to the survey, are "unauthorized immigrants." Altogether, about 44 percent of the Hispanics in the U.S. are noncitizens, according to the Pew report.

Yet the most intense fear provoked by this population is tied to that tiny fraction—some tens of thousands nationwide—who belong to gangs. Not only do they represent real and indisputable sources of violent crime, they spread fear both inside and outside immigrant communities. What is worse, perhaps, they spread fear of those communities.

"The 95 percent good that may be achieved by immigrant populations is almost entirely negated by gang activity," Lee Baca, the sheriff of Los Angeles County, told me recently. "Law-abiding people who are not from the neighborhoods where the gangs reside do not trust those neighborhoods, and when people don't trust neighborhoods they won't go to them for any purpose at all"—not for commerce, not for culture, not even for high-school sports.

Responsible immigrants who feel vulnerable to begin with have to balance their fear of the gangs with their fear of the authorities. (According to the Pew report, "just over half of all Hispanic adults in the United States worry that they, a family member or a close friend could be deported.") In many cases, says Baca, parents are intimidated by their gang-member children.

To some extent, this is part of a long-familiar pattern. For decades sociologists have observed what's called "the paradox of assimilation": the children and grandchildren of immigrants in the United States absorb the violent ways of U.S. society, and they are more likely than their parents to get involved with criminal activity. That's especially true, of course, if their parents' dreams of a better life are thwarted and the children are cut off from education and jobs.

But in this world of increasingly porous frontiers, what goes on inside the United States is hard to isolate from what happens abroad. The problem with Laredo, Texas, for instance, is not the influx of new immigrants in the 1990s, which, once again, correlated with major declines in Laredo's crime rates throughout the decade. It was the rise of gangs just across the border and the failure of Mexican authorities to crack down on them effectively that led to violence to spill over onto the U.S. side of the Rio Grande.

The most infamous gangs of the moment come from farther away and operate deeper inside the United States. Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13 as it's called, had its origins in the aftermath of El Salvador's savage civil war and the gang rivalries of the Los Angeles barrios where many Salvadoran refugees fled. Over the last 15 years MS-13 has spread across the United States, often reaching into small towns and suburbs. "MS-13 is far more violent and operates like a crime syndicate," says Baca. "It's ruthless, organized and operating on a scale that is international."

The many mass arrests and deportations of MS-13 members over the last few years have, in fact, created a symbiotic spiral of violence, with the murderous cultures of the United States and El Salvador feeding off each other as gang members move back and forth. Joaquín Villalobos, a former Salvadoran guerrilla leader who now works as an adviser on conflict resolution to several governments, says "the gang culture is North American, while what grew in Central America was a very primitive culture of violence with even fewer scruples. From that mix has emerged the most dangerous gang we know about."

So here's my question: if gangs cause crime, while the vast majority of immigrants help reduce crime, why don't our presidential candidates make gangs—and not immigrants—the issue?