Agents and officers from U.S. Customs and Border Protection honor fallen federal law enforcers during a memorial ceremony in 2008. Image courtesy of CBP.

Three critical reports have emerged in recent weeks contrasting sharply with assertions that endless crime emanating from a porous border made it necessary to pass Arizona’s controversial immigration law. But the new revelations appear to have only minimally impacted the rancor swirling anew around perceived border violence in the wake of a shooting by federal law enforcement June 7 that left a 15-year-old boy dead.

Authorities say the teenager was part of a group throwing rocks at border patrol agents as they attempted to detain a suspected illegal immigrant during the headline-grabbing incident.

The border patrol internally put together one of the latest reports, which says that law enforcers working on the nation’s southwest boundary with Mexico are safer at work than the average American police officer. A second academic study published this month found not only that crime had decreased in cities with rising immigration levels but also that the presence of more immigrants appeared to be partly responsible for dips in reported violent activity.

Writing in Social Science Quarterly, University of Colorado sociologist Tim Wadsworth stated that cities with the biggest jump in immigration between 1990 and 2000 also experienced the greatest reductions in homicide and robbery during that same time period. “The findings offer insights into the complex relationship between immigration and crime and suggest that growth in immigration may have been responsible for part of the precipitous crime drops of the 1990s,” Wadsworth said in the study’s abstract.

Then on June 3, Associated Press reporter Martha Mendoza publicized an in-house report by U.S. Customs and Border Protection she obtained under the Freedom of Information Act revealing that just three percent of border patrol agents and officers were attacked last year, “mostly when assailants threw rocks at them.” That’s compared with statistics showing 11 percent of sheriff’s deputies and police officers nationwide were assaulted with knives or guns during the same examined timeframe suggesting there were fewer risks working as a cop on the border.

Additionally, new FBI crime statistics cited in the AP story showed that during 2009, border states were home to four big cities in America where the lowest rates of violent crime occurred, three of them central to the debate over whether the U.S. is endlessly threatened by bloodshed on the border.

Some insistent policymakers paint a portrait of Phoenix, San Diego and El Paso in particular as being under siege, and they continue to call for National Guard personnel and hundreds of millions of dollars more in federal aid to quell border chaos. President Obama has agreed to meet those demands by promising infusions of cash and the deployment of troops.

Evidence has shown for some time now that El Paso specifically enjoys a low number of violent crimes, even though it’s situated just across the border from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, where drug cartels have taken thousands of lives in a bloody fight to control essential trafficking routes. The fourth big city with one of the lowest rates of violent crime is Austin, Texas.

Yet the latest findings haven’t slowed intense rhetoric from some political leaders in southwestern states who cast the border as a warzone and say turbulence there is an alarming threat to national security. Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona attributes crime in her state to illegal immigration, and Sen. John McCain, who’s facing a tough reelection battle that centers in part on immigration issues, points to marijuana seizures and property crime as evidence of a need for bolder action.

After noting a remarkable drop in the number of violent crimes experienced by Phoenix between 2008 and 2009, Newsweek journalist Christopher Dickey wrote May 27:

The FBI numbers show that in the midst of the supposed crime wave, many other cities in the southwest have had declines in crime similar to Phoenix. El Paso, Texas, just across the Rio Grande from a ferocious drug war in Juarez, where some 5,000 people have been murdered in recent years, saw almost no change in its own crime rate and remains one of the safest cities in the country, with only 12 murders last year. San Antonio saw violent crime drop from 9,699 incidents to 7,844; murders from 116 to 99. Compare that with a city like Detroit, which is a little bigger than El Paso and much smaller than San Antonio – and not exactly a magnet for job-seeking immigrants. Its murder rate went up from 323 in 2008 to 361 in 2009.

Not all is perfect on the border, however. Statistics also show that in some parts of Texas, border agents endured an increase in assaults between 2008 and 2009 and needed to fire their weapons on more occasions. It’s also the case that decreases in violent attacks perpetrated against law enforcement may be due to a wilted economy discouraging illegal immigration and a doubling of the number of agents working on the border since 2004.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED,, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.