[This is an op-ed piece I shopped around to a few media outlets in February, but no one bit. Instead of letting it going to waste in my computer files, I wanted to share it with my readers.]
UPDATE: It got picked up by the East Valley Tribune in Arizona! Below is the original (longer) piece I submitted, but if you want to see it in finished form on the paper's website, please CLICK HERE.
Throughout 2010, U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano said repeatedly that our southwest border “is as safe and secure as it’s ever been.” On Jan. 31, 2011, she asked public officials to stop exaggerating claims of violence on the U.S. side of the border. On the same day, she told a gathering at the University of Texas in El Paso that it was inaccurate to state that the border is overrun with violence and out of control. To back up her position, she always cites statistics from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program.
Unfortunately, that’s why she has no idea what she’s talking about.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the statistics in the UCR database. It’s the way in which DHS has chosen to use these statistics—and ignore other valuable and relevant information—that has led the agency into a position of ignorance when it comes to the overall border security threat picture.
There’s a lot that needs to be known and understood about the FBI crime statistics Secretary Napolitano refers to. First, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies across the country supply the crime data voluntarily. While the inclusion rate is quite high, some agencies choose not to provide this information. For example, you won’t find crime statistics from authorities in the Tahono O’oodam Nation in Arizona, a tribe whose reservation is divided in two by the border and is sometimes viewed as being uncooperative in law enforcement efforts against drug and human smuggling activity.
Second, most drug-related violent activity reported to or identified by law enforcement in the U.S. is committed by criminals against criminals. Generally speaking, criminals who become victims of crime themselves tend to not call the cops. For example, in 2009, 368 kidnappings were reported to police in Phoenix, Arizona. The police department there says the majority of them are linked to drug-trafficking and human-smuggling operations. More importantly, they say the real number is likely much higher, since many go unreported.
In another example, illegal immigrants are huge targets for Mexican drug cartels operating on both sides of the border. They’re often kidnapped and held for ransom, many times in safe houses in southwest border states, until their family members in the U.S. can pay the ransom. If they can’t, often the victims are killed. Even if an illegal immigrant makes it safely to their destination, they usually won’t report crimes as serious as armed assault or rape because they fear deportation.
Third, looking at the statistics themselves doesn’t tell the story in enough detail. For example, burglary—from rural ranches to apartments in urban areas—is a common border-related crime because drug traffickers and human smugglers alike are looking for drugs or money. Looking at FBI statistics for burglary in the four Arizona border states between 2005 and 2009, there’s no discernible pattern whatsoever; they alternate between going up and down each year. Furthermore, they don’t tell you if the burglary was committed by a Mexican drug trafficker, human smuggler, illegal immigrant, or greedy American citizen. If you look at violent crime statistics for four counties in Texas directly across the border from violent areas in Mexico—Cameron, El Paso, Hidalgo, and Webb—they consistently go up from 2007-2009.
Another problem with solely citing FBI crime statistics is that there are too many ways in which the data can be broken down and interpreted, and simultaneously not enough ways to define it. While some crime reports contain information about the offenders and victims, many do not, and I say with confidence that most people in either category wouldn’t voluntarily affiliate themselves with a Mexican drug cartel.
So how can Secretary Napolitano use FBI crime statistics for support when she says our southwest border has never been more secure, and subsequently accuse lawmakers of exaggerating the levels of border violence? She can’t, with any credibility anyway. I’m not saying she’s outright wrong, but I am saying she probably doesn’t know if she’s right.
When you’re trying to analyze something as huge as border security and the impact Mexico’s drug war is having on larger border cities and smaller rural communities, you can’t just cite numbers in a database, call them facts and say that’s that. DHS has to work harder to connect with border counties, towns, and tribal areas to find out first-hand what impact smuggling activity is having, and what their law enforcement needs are. Securing our border is a multi-faceted problem that deserves a multi-faceted approach.
Crime statistics are important indicators, and serve many purposes for law enforcement and government agencies along the border. However, there are other avenues that should be explored in combination with statistics to get a more realistic view of drug-related criminal activity in the border states. Law enforcement agencies in border counties should be canvassed to find out as much as possible about the characteristics of crimes committed in the jurisdiction—specifically, characteristics not entered into the FBI system that might relate to drug activity. Also, their sources and confidential informants can be tapped to get an overall idea of drug-related crimes that are happening and not being reported. Non-profit organizations that provide support to immigrant communities can be contacted to determine if they’ve had any surges of calls from victims of crime who are afraid to call the police.
If Secretary Napolitano wants to convince lawmakers—and the American public—that our border truly has never been more secure, it will only happen if she can say that she’s looked at more than just FBI crime statistics.