Undocumented immigrants are causing a crime wave in Arizona: True or false?

Last year, a national poll indicated that a third of all Americans believe immigrants significantly increase the crime rate.

The perception is that, yes, they are: the truth is, no one is keeping track.

And the only statistics available that single out the immigration status of defendants and criminals — prison and jail populations, and felonies prosecuted in the county — suggest that illegal immigrants commit crimes at a rate virtually proportionate to their numbers in the general population.

There is no question that illegal immigrants are flooding across the border and that the state's Spanish-speaking population is growing. Illegal immigration is the No. 1 issue for Phoenix residents, according to a 2006 Pew Research Center poll.

Court officials, prosecutors and legislators are quarreling over how to enforce voter-approved Proposition 100, which denies bail to illegal immigrants accused of serious crimes.

The truth is, as serious as they are, put in a larger news context, many of the crimes would never make it to TV news or see newsprint if committed by legal citizens.

But the hype has reached fever pitch, and radio talk-show hosts work themselves into a frenzy on the topic.

They're not alone.

One widely circulated e-mail cited the Los Angeles Times as saying that 95 percent of murder warrants and 75 percent of people on the most-wanted list in Los Angeles were illegal immigrants.

"I saw that e-mail, and it's wrong," said Mesa Police Chief George Gascsn, a former assistant police chief in that city.

"By and large, criminality of Hispanics in LA is very proportionate to their size in the population," Gascsn said.

The same is true for Mesa, he said, where slightly more than half of all violent crimes are committed by Anglos and one-third by Hispanics, roughly proportionate to the population.

Area police departments don't keep track of the numbers of crimes committed by illegal immigrants because they consider immigration to be a federal responsibility. And the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency mostly concentrates on human- and drug-smuggling operations without comparing notes with law enforcement in general. The courts don't keep track, either.

"We don't know the full dimensions of the problem for what I have called the conspiracy of silence of police forces and other actors in the criminal justice system," Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas said. "A lot of people in positions of authority do not want to know criminals' immigration status."

Thomas ran for office on a platform of curtailing illegal immigration. Records kept by his office count undocumented immigrants in 10 percent of all felony cases filed.

The numbers of undocumented immigrants in the Maricopa County jails and the Arizona Department of Corrections prisons are also roughly proportional to the population as a whole.

In early March, the Washington, D.C.-based Immigration Policy Center released a study claiming that Mexicans born in Mexico were seven times less likely to be incarcerated than Mexican-Americans.

And aside from their illegal presence, there is no evidence that undocumented immigrants in Arizona commit crimes at a significantly higher rate than any other segment of society.

A sampling of bad publicity

The immigration crisis is very real, but it inspires a lot of hyperbole.

And a lot of media coverage:

On Feb. 2, an undocumented immigrant in west Phoenix was charged with stabbing and seriously injuring a man who had just finished a military tour in Iraq. On Feb. 18, a man on a bicycle was run down by an undocumented immigrant in north Phoenix, police say. On Feb. 25, an undocumented immigrant was charged with raping a 6-year-old girl in south Phoenix.

In March, a man accused of kidnapping and assaulting his girlfriend was deported to Mexico right before he could be indicted, but police say he returned to Arizona 11 days later and stabbed his female cousin to death.

Source: The Arizona Republic