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"Illegals" and "Broken Windows"

When conservatives refer to undocumented immigrants as "illegals," liberals usually chalk it up to simple bigotry or an attempt to denigrate the people in question. And it's true that the term does serve to dehumanize immigrants by defining them by the legal status of one thing they've done. But I think the term also reveals something about the worldview of the people who use the term.

This was made fairly explicit by Minnesota Governor and (for some reason) presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty, who recently compared immigration enforcement to the "broken windows" police strategy: "It's analogous in some ways to what was happening in New York not long ago. If you allow people to pee on the sidewalks, next they're snatching purses."

What's going on with the term "illegals" is a statement about human nature. According to conservatives on this issue, there are basically two kinds of people -- lawbreakers and law-abiders. Law-abiders are in the habit of respecting any law. Lawbreakers, on the other hand, have a lowered respect for law as a whole. This means that if someone gets away with breaking one law, they'll break others, because only a sort of generalized respect for the law (which they have demonstrated they lack) keeps people in line.

This is the basic thinking behind the "broken windows" police strategy in New York that Pawlenty referenced -- if people see that you can get away with small crimes like breaking windows of abandoned buildings, then that will tip them over into "lawbreaker" status, leading them to commit big crimes too, while cracking down on little crimes will keep them as law-abiders who wouldn't commit any crimes. Pawlenty thinks the same thing applies to immigrants -- if they get away with the violation of unlawful presence in the US, then that shows they are general-purpose "illegals"* who would happily break any other law too.

This is an empirical claim -- people who break immigration laws are just lawbreaking types and thus have a propensity to break other laws too. And it has been tested. Unfortunately for Pawlenty, those tests have come up negative. Research on immigration and crime has consistently shown that immigrants, including undocumented ones, commit crimes at a lower rate than native-born citizens. And crackdowns on undocumented immigrants do not bring down overall crime rates -- in fact, crime in everywhere in Arizona has been on the decline except in Maricopa County, where Sheriff Joe Arpaio has famously made immigration enforcement a central part of his agenda. It turns out that focusing your resources on checking the papers of anybody with a cracked taillight means you don't have time to go after the real criminals.

A better theory, supported by the actual experience of immigrants themselves, is that when a law is sufficiently unjust and sufficiently burdensome to people, those people come to see that particular law as illegitimate. They then feel less compunction about breaking it -- but that lawbreaking doesn't spill over into their approach to laws they find just and not-so-burdensome, like theft and murder laws. Migrating to the US illegally is not something you do for the hell of it or because you have a sense of entitlement about getting what you want. It's a difficult project that requires a lot of planning and willingness to accept risk -- and thus the people who are successful at it are not going to be inclined to blow it by getting in trouble unnecessarily once they're here.

So the term "illegals" is not just dehumanizing and bigoted. It's also based on an empirically false sociological theory.

*I don't know if Pawlenty himself actually uses the term, but the thinking is the same.


Blogger Joel Monka said...

You misstate the "broken windows" theory; read the Wikipedia entry you referenced. They do not mean that individuals will escalate in criminal activity; it's that the existence of broken windows announce that nobody is watching, and nobody cares. That attracts criminals who have been having a harder time elsewhere.

That reading of illegal immigration as a broken window problem is hard to dispute; illicit drugs that used to enter the country through airports and seaports now come through the southern border, simply because they know they can get away with it. According to the DEA, the vast majority of marijuana, cocaine, meth, and heroin now come through Mexico, even if they originated elsewhere. Check out these stats from the DEA

6:28 PM  
Blogger Alon Levy said...

Joel, what do you mean, "Now"? Drugs often came from Mexico in George Jung's days, too. They moved on to Colombia when the civil war there made it easy to smuggle drugs, and now move back to Mexico now that Colombia's becoming a more lawful country while northern Mexico's becoming a failed state.

1:48 PM  
Blogger Joel Monka said...

Yes, drugs have traditionally come through Mexico, but the sheer volume these days is a new phenomenon- as they say, quantity can be a quality of it's own. Look at those DEA figures: last year they seized three million pounds of marijuana coming across the southern border, and that loss was only a mosquito bite to the Mexican cartels; Mexican marijuana is still the cheapest, most readily available throughout the nation. They seized seventeen metric tons of cocaine- do you have any concept of how many doses a ton of cocaine is? According to the Justice Dept., it is now cheaper in many cities to buy Mexican meth than to buy the precursor chemicals and make it yourself. Compared to the old days of hippies hiding a brick in the frame of their Beetlebus, this is new, and rates "now".

I don't care about workers, and I'm not afraid of their taking my job. Give 'em all green cards... but close the damn bordersbefore those highway warning signs the federal government has been putting up- "Danger Public Warning Travel Not Recommended", and "Travel Caution Smuggling And Illegal Immigration May Be Encountered In This Area"- start appearing in more states; 80 miles deep into Arizona is enough no-man's-land to concede to criminal gangs

3:00 PM  
Blogger Alon Levy said...

Closing the border hasn't worked in the past; why will it work now? The issue here is double. First, nativists are using the Mexican drug scare as an excuse for activities that have nothing to do with drugs, namely, search-and-destroy operations against illegal immigrants. And second, the US is fully complicit in helping Mexico militarize its northern areas, to the point that the Mexican military is now just another drug gang.

12:09 AM  

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