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…”

The video can be found here (the relevant timestamp is 49:00-50:00) with the transcription above provided by E.J. Montini of The Arizona Republic.

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).

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Campaign 2010, US Politics, , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. King of Fools says:

    I think I disagree slightly with you but some of it might be semantics. I think she is talking about those actively crossing the border, even though the new law and law enforcement can’t really only target new illegals…unless amnesty comes once again.

    Of those actively crossing the border, some are relatively benign (looking for work) while others are here maliciously (running drugs, etc). Of the two groups, the former will only cross once (unless they are deported and come right back) while the latter individuals will presumably leave and recross over and over until caught.

    In that context, I think it is not unreasonable to assume that a good half or better of those actively running the border are here for nefarious reasons (but impossible to prove!).

  2. TangoMan says:

    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.

    I agree with this statement completely. If we somehow miraculously adopted this viewpoint then we’d have to make wholesale revisions to our nation’s foreign policy, education policy, environmental policy, anti-discrimination policy, and I’m sure that a whole bunch of other sectors would need to be tweaked somewhat.

    Your point though does stand on its own – Brewer is misdiagnosing the problem. The fact that this is standard operating procedure for both the Left and the Right doesn’t excuse her doing so but you should also acknowledge that she’s doing what every politician does.

  3. I think it is not unreasonable to assume that a good half or better of those actively running the border are here for nefarious reasons

    Actually, this is almost certainly not true. For example, the Pew Hispanic Center estimated in 2005 that between 4.5 and 5 million illegals entered the US by illegally crossing the border (as opposed to be being visa over-stayers). (clarification: I meant that the Pew Hispanic Center reported those numbers in 2005, not that that many people entered in 2005.)

    If one looks at the actual numbers of apprehensions at the border, it is pretty easy to see that the vast, vast, vast majority of illegal border crossings are made by people coming here looking for work. Indeed, over the past decade there have been, annually, anywhere from 600k to 1.6 million apprehensions at the border and I guarantee you if half or more of those were drug runners, it would have been national news and would have utterly changed the debate on this topic. Those are DHS numbers as reported by Pew.

  4. TangoMan says:

    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.,

    I’m going to argue a pedantic point here. Brewer isn’t defining the problem as drug trafficking for she and the majority of Arizonans have clearly defined the problem as illegals imposing costs on society that citizens don’t want to bear. What Brewer is doing is characterizing the motivation of the illegals or she’s misidentifying their activities once they get here and neither of these two errors changes the problem one whit.

    People know why they’re upset with illegal immigration, especially in Arizona, and most people know that the majority of illegal aliens are not drug dealers. You can refute Brewer’s point and you’re still left with the needle of discontent almost unbudged.

    So, unlike the other instances of politicians misidentifying the problem Brewer doesn’t technically, to my mind, make the same error.

  5. just me says:

    I think her point that not every illegal immigrant is coming her for a job, but to commit crimes is important-I think we sometimes ignore the criminal aspects of illegal immigration too much.

    But I am willing to bet the vast majority of border crossers are coming her to get work, not move drugs.

    But stopping the illegal border crossings-whether it is people looking for work or people committing crimes is a good thing. I think turning a blind eye to illegal immigration doesn’t do our nation any good.

    As a nation we need to change our immigration policy. For one thing legal immigration is too expensive and too time consuming. I would like to see immigration made easier and cheaper especially for those who are looking for work. If immigration was made easier to do legally, then I think we could more readily assume that those crossing the borders have criminal intent.

    We need to do other things as well, but I think sitting around twiddling our thumbs and just spouting “they want to come here and work” doesn’t solve any of the problems.

    Also, I don’t know that I buy the premise that the jobs illegal immigrants do are jobs Americans won’t do. I live in a state with a very small to non existent illegal immigration problem. Americans run the landscaping businesses, they work in the restaurants and as janitors and maids. The agriculture business here is more dairy farming oriented than crop oriented, but the employees aren’t illegal immigrants either. The truth is that we like cheap vegetables and Americans won’t pick tomatoes or other crops for what the farmers want to pay so the veggies stay cheap. Americans will do the work, they just aren’t going to do it for peanuts.

  6. TangoMan says:

    As a nation we need to change our immigration policy. For one thing legal immigration is too expensive and too time consuming.

    I agree. What I’d like to see is an alternating sequence of immigration, say 20 years, followed by a period of no immigration, again 20 years, as we’ve seen throughout our history, though not be design. Welcome, now assimilate. Welcome, now assimilate.

    Secondly, no more family reunification. Immigration should be about how society benefits from a newcomer, not how American society can benefit a newcomer. If an immigrant wants to unify with his family he can stay in his home country.

    Thirdly, let’s stop importing poverty. The liberals will be pleased by the lessening of income inequality and fewer people qualifying as living in poverty and then they’ll turn their attention to some other issue which they can use to expand the size of government.

  7. […] Originally written for OTB.  […]

  8. Crime in AZ says:

    […] underscore why Governor Brewer’s comments at the GOP gubernatorial debate were so absurd (see here) .   A proper accounting of crime as a variable is also, in part, what I am talking when I say […]