Crimes committed by illegal immigrants dropped by 18.5 percent from 2007 to 2008 thanks to law enforcement's hard line against those in the country unlawfully, Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas said this week.
A study by Thomas' office shows the amount of illegal immigrants sentenced for felonies in Maricopa County Superior Court dropped from 4,731 in 2007 to 3,855 in 2008. That's an 18.5 percent drop. An 8 percent drop was also reported in overall reported crime, Thomas said.
Put another way, 18.7 percent of the people sentenced for felonies in Maricopa County Superior Court in 2007 were in the county illegally. In 2008, only 14 percent of that group were illegal immigrants.
"What we seem to be witnessing is a substantial reduction in the population of illegal immigrants in this county over the last two years," he said.
He pointed to a Center for Immigration Studies report released in July, which showed the population of illegal immigrants in the United States dropped nearly 14 percent, from 12.5 million in the summer of 2007 to 10.8 million in first quarter 2009. The study reportedly said Arizona led the nation with the biggest drop of illegal immigrants.
"We have a lot of anecdotal evidence of areas in the Valley that have a large number of presumed illegal immigrants leaving (and) businesses that cater to illegal immigrants suffering or going out of business entirely," Thomas said.
"So you have all of this evidence that supports the conclusion that illegal immigration is being curbed significantly, and I believe the main reason for that is the crackdown efforts of law enforcement and particularly the sheriff's office and our office."
Alessandra Soler Meetze, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Arizona office, said Thomas is jumping to conclusions if he thinks crime rates are going down because of the heightened pursuit of illegal immigration violators by his office and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
"I just think that it's kind of difficult for him to make this link," she said, adding the sour economy and the possible ineffectiveness of the county attorney's office to successfully prosecute some cases may be factors.
The study by the Center for Immigration Studies - which describes itself on its Web site as pro-immigrant while stating a vision of "fewer immigrants but a warmer welcome for those admitted" - said the recession is also a factor to the population decline in the nation.
But Thomas said the stepped-up enforcement is the most compelling explanation behind the plummeting population in the state and county.
"It's not as if the economy is a lot better in Mexico," he said. "The reality is the economy worldwide has suffered and the most reasonable conclusion is that they're just feeling too much heat from law enforcement."
He said that border enforcement hasn't improved much, adding that the National Guard is no longer there. And, he said, a report he's read says the Department of Homeland Security is pulling officers away from the border.
He added: "They're not building the fence as they had pledged to do - the federal government, I mean. So, I think the really tough enforcement efforts are happening north of the border here in Maricopa County, frankly."
Thomas said the reductions in some felonies "have not been nearly as dramatic for murders and sexual assaults, but that also can reflect the fact that those cases take longer to process by the court system."