Throughout 2010, U.S. Department of Homeland Security 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 program.
Unfortunately, that’s why she has no idea what she’s talking about.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with these statistics. It’s the way in which DHS has chosen to use them — and ignore other 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 to which Secretary Napolitano refers. 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 the Tohono O’odham 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. 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 counties 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 the same four counties, there’s also no discernible pattern, and violent crime actually went up in three out of the four counties from 2008 to 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.
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.
• Sylvia Longmire (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former Special Agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, and worked as a senior intelligence analyst and border security expert for the California Emergency Management Agency.