Radically Misdiagnosing the Problem (Jan Brewer and Illegal Immigration)
Are the majority of illegal immigrants drug-runners? Arizona Governor Jan Brewer thinks so.
In a debate amongst Republicans vying to be the party’s nominee for governor in Arizona, the current governor, Jan Brewer, had the following interchange with fellow primary participant, Matthew Jette:
Jette said of illegal immigrants, “These people, a lot of them, are just trying to feed their family… They just want to work.”
Brewer immediately jumped in, saying, “We are a nation of laws. And they are coming across our border illegally. And the majority of them in my opinion and I think in the opinion of law enforcement is that they are not coming here to work. They are coming here and they’re bringing drugs. And they’re doing drop houses and they’re extorting people and they’re terrorizing the families. That is the truth, Matt. That is the truth…”
Now, I fully understand that there have been violent incidences, including the murder of rancher near the border and cases of violence against police. However, to assert that “the majority” of illegal immigrants are drug-runners is so stunningly incorrect as to be the kind of thing that one does not originally believe that one is reading when one is reading it. Indeed, I made sure that the transcript was correct by finding the quote in the video linked above.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, there are an estimated 11.9 million illegal immigrants in the United States (a 2008 estimate), of which 76% are of Latin American origin (59% are of Mexican origin). That would give us an estimated 9 million illegal immigrants from the south (source). If “the majority” are involved with the drug industry, let’s be conservative and go with a bare majority, 50.1%, which would give us about 4.5 million drug-industry related illegal immigrants or roughly the population of my state of residence (Alabama). This is an absurd figure. And yes, I realize that Brewer made no numerical claims apart from the “majority” issue in the debate, but I point it all out to note the kind of scale we are talking about here if we were to take the claim seriously.
I suppose that Brewer could be arguing that there is something special about the persons crossing into Arizona or that of late there has been a majority shift in the type of person crossing the border. However, she would be wrong. The fundamental fact is, has been, and will continue to be that the main attraction for illegal border crossing is jobs. We know that most illegal immigrants work in agriculture, construction and food services not drug trafficking. It is worth noting that the intensity of the drug war in Mexico is a relatively new phenomenon while the issue of migrant labor is a multi-decade one.
The bottom line is that if Brewer and her allies are going to define the problem as fundamentally one of drug trafficking then they are radically misdiagnosing the problem. And just as misdiagnosis is problematic in medicine, so too is it in public policy. The resources and approach needed to fight migrants laborers sneaking into the country are substantially different than the resources and approaches needed to fight drug traffickers. Yes, there is some overlap, but there is also quite bit that is different.
Further, to cast the situation as one of drug traffickers instead of migrant labor to further demonize said laborers (and, really, the hispanic community as well).