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Border residents say neighborhoods are safe

Over-hyped claims connecting immigration and crime, particularly along the United States-Mexico border, are all too common in electoral seasons.

What is missing from discussions about the border and crime are the views of border residents.

How do they feel about security and crime? Recent surveys reveal that the majority of residents living in cities along the U.S.-Mexico border feel safe.

When I asked residents of El Paso, the largest urban area along the border after the San Diego metropolitan area, about safety and security, they overwhelmingly responded that they feel safe.

El Paso sits right next to Ciudad Juarez, the largest Mexican border city.

I surveyed more than 900 Hispanic residents; around 83 percent of El Paso residents are Hispanic. Only around 3 percent reported feeling “not safe.”

Before that, residents were asked to describe their neighborhood. The question was open-ended to avoid priming or biasing the answers.

A great majority used positive terms to characterize their neighborhood. They used words such as “calm,” “good” or “safe.”

While Mexico itself has suffered an increase in violence due to the war on drugs waged by military forces, and drug trafficking and distribution spans the border, drug violence usually does not spill over to the U.S. side and rarely affects American civilians not connected to drug dealing.

Indeed, other surveys across ethnic and racial groups reveal insights into border residents’ perceptions of safety and security.

A poll commissioned by the Border Network for Human Rights showed that 70 percent of respondents “feel their border neighborhood is as safe as most U.S. neighborhoods,” while 88 percent “feel safe walking and driving in their neighborhood.”

Cronkite News, Univision, and The Dallas Morning News, interviewing residents across cities along both sides of the border, found that 92 percent of respondents on the U.S. side felt safe in their neighborhood at night compared with 54 percent of respondents on the Mexican side.

Only 14 percent of border residents in the U.S. said that the U.S. should definitively build a border wall.

Statistics on crime also do not match the rhetoric of those who paint the border as a lawless, unsafe place.

Homicide rates for the main U.S. cities along the southwestern border are consistently lower than the homicide rates in other major U.S. cities of equivalent size, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics.

Furthermore, much research makes clear that first-generation immigrants in the United States have low rates of criminal activity. This is especially true for migrants without proper papers who try to avoid negative police attention.

The decision years ago to build fences along border urban areas and step up patrolling of the borderline has diverted migration from urban areas into rural ones, and apprehensions of Mexicans at the border have declined.

The increases in the arrival of Central American minors have been noted because most of them go to immigration authorities to ask for asylum. They are often escaping violence in their places of origin.

Areas with high rates of immigrants have lower crime and homicide rates than those with fewer immigrants.

Beyond a few unfortunate exceptions, migrants are not criminals.

To the contrary, immigrants make U.S. communities, including those along the U.S.-Mexico border, safe. That is a fact-based reality that is worth sharing.

Ernesto Castañeda is an assistant professor of sociology at American University in Washington, D.C.

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