Will Arizona Encourage Criminals To Prey on Immigrants?

| Thu May 27, 2010 11:00 AM EDT

Proponents of Arizona’s new immigration law regularly characterize immigrants as criminals, pointing to the killing of two Phoenix police officers by illegal immigrants and the (still unsolved) murder of a border-area rancher earlier this year. But in Arizona, as elsewhere, immigrants are actually less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans, according to many criminologists and non-partisan immigration researchers. Rather than target the perpetrators of crime, Arizona’s new law could actually increase crime and encourage criminals to prey upon immigrants, according to a group of police chiefs from across the country.

The police chiefs—including officials from Tucson, Los Angeles, Houston, and other major cities—met with Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday to discuss their concerns about the impact of the Arizona law, which they believe will make it harder for them to do their jobs by driving a wedge between immigrants and police. Within local communities, “it will put a level of mistrust, and it will break down those relationships we have worked so hard to establish,” said Tucson Chief of Police Roberto Villasenor on a conference call Wednesday. “That will probably increase crime rather than reduce crime.” The police chiefs stressed their fear that Arizona’s law could inhibit people from coming forward as crime victims or witnesses, making law enforcement efforts “doomed to failure,” said Los Angeles Chief of Police Charlie Beck. 

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Given the mounting concerns, the Department of Justice is considering its own lawsuit against the Arizona law, although Holder hasn’t made a final decision on how to proceed. In the meantime, Arizona police officers are poised to become vilified by both sides of the immigration battle: supporters could sue police for not enforcing the law, while opponents could accuse them of racial profiling. The law "puts Arizona law enforcement right in the middle,” said John Harris, president of the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police.

It's criminals who could end up taking advantage of this climate of fear by victimizing immigrants, the police chiefs added. “We know there are individuals out there who will specifically target people because they believe they will not report it,” said San Jose Police Chief Rob Davis. And there are already concerns that the Arizona law could fuel hostility and violence against immigrants and Latinos. Earlier this month in Phoenix, Juan Varela, a 44-year-old Mexican-American, was murdered by his neighbor, who “repeated a racial slur several times and told Varela to ‘go back to Mexico’ or he would die,” according to investigators. Family members are pressing authorities to try the case as an anti-Hispanic hate crime and have joined with activists who blame the Arizona law for ratcheting up racial tensions.

There have been waves of anti-Hispanic violence in other pockets of the country as well. Last month, a white teenager was convicted of the racially motivated murder of an Ecuadorian immigrant on Long Island—one of a series of attacks on Hispanics that assailants call “Mexican hopping.” In Florida, criminals have frequently targeted illegal Guatemalan immigrants, popularly known as “Guat-bashing.” “They're being preyed upon because they're easy victims,'' the head of the West Palm Police Department told The New York Times in 2006. "They don't fight back. They're very modest people, and they're afraid of the police.'' The proliferation of Arizona-type immigration laws in other states could make these populations even more fearful and vulnerable.