Border wall

Immigrants, Not the Wall, Have Made El Paso Safe, Mr. President

The city was among the safest in the country long before the wall was built.


President Donald Trump has been going around the country claiming that El Paso, a border city in Texas, had a crime problem…until it got a

Border Wall
Jonathan McIntosh via

wall. "It used to have extremely high rates of violent crime—one of the highest in the country, and considered one of our Nation's most dangerous cities," he asserted in his State of Union address. "Now, with a powerful barrier in place, El Paso is one of our safest cities."

And then, earlier this week, he went to El Paso itself and proclaimed that the city was proof that walls work: "I've been hearing a lot of things: 'Oh the wall didn't make that much of a difference.' You know where it made a big difference? Right here in El Paso."

Trump is right that El Paso is one the safest cities in the country. He's just plain wrong that the wall has anything to do with it.

As former Reasoner Radley Balko pointed out back in 2009, if one extrapolated from conventional wisdom on both the left and right, El Paso would be "one of the scariest cities in the world."

After all, its poverty rate then was over 27 percent (now it's 20 percent), median household income was $35,600 (now it's $44,431), well below the national average of $48,000 (now it's $59,000). It was three-quarters Hispanic, and one-quarter foreign-born (the same as now). And given that it was nearly impossible for low-skilled immigrants to work in the United States legitimately, a significant percentage of the foreign-born were likely unauthorized. Worse, El Paso had lax gun laws. But the real kicker was that it was right next to Ciudad Juarez—which is one of Mexico's scariest cities, thanks to the presence of drug cartels.

But, in fact, Balko noted, El Paso had just 18 murders in 2008. By contrast, Baltimore, with roughly the same population, had 234!

Did the wall have anything to do with that?

The resounding answer is "no." The construction on the El Paso wall started in 2008, two years after President George W. Bush passed the Secure Fence Act (and locals lost a lawsuit against building the hideous structure), and was completed in 2009. But FBI figures show that El Paso's violent crime rate fell 17 percent from 2006 to 2011.

Although, by national standards, El Paso's violent crime rate was never high, it spiked in 1992 and then started a major downward trend in 1997 with the steepest declines settling in around 2002. In fact, it reached its lowest point ever in 2006, two years before construction on the wall even began—and crept up slightly in 2010, the year after the wall went up. But, overall, violent crime has by and large stayed at under 3,000 incidents per year for the past 11 years. Indeed, El Paso experienced 356.3 violent crimes per 100,000 people in 2017—compared to the national average of 382.9.

Correlation is not causation so there is no reason to believe that the wall was actually responsible for responsible for this small uptick, especially since the city's crime rate fell again to its lowest 2006-level again around 2013.

The intriguing question is why does a city with El Paso's socio-demography have such a low crime rate?

One explanation is that the community policing approach it has deployed for the past two decades has been extremely effective. But part of the reason might also be its large foreign-born population.

Again, correlation is not causation, but here's Balko:

Many criminologists say El Paso isn't safe despite its high proportion of immigrants, it's safe because of them.

"If you want to find a safe city, first determine the size of the immigrant population," says Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Massachusetts. "If the immigrant community represents a large proportion of the population, you're likely in one of the country's safer cities. San Diego, Laredo, El Paso—these cities are teeming with immigrants, and they're some of the safest places in the country."…

Numerous studies by independent researchers and government commissions over the past 100 years repeatedly and consistently have found that, in fact, immigrants are less likely to commit crimes or to be behind bars than are the native-born. This is true for the nation as a whole, as well as for cities with large immigrant populations such as Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Miami, and cities along the U.S.-Mexico border such as San Diego and El Paso.

These findings track Cato Institute's Alex Nowrasteh's recent research on immigrants and crime in the Don't Tread on Me state:

In 2015, Texas police made 815,689 arrests of native-born Americans, 37,776 arrests of illegal immigrants, and 20,323 arrests of legal immigrants. For every 100,000 people in each subgroup, there were 3,578 arrests of natives, 2,149 arrests of illegal immigrants, and 698 arrests of legal immigrants. The arrest rate for illegal immigrants was 40 percent below that of native-born Americans. The arrest rate for all immigrants and legal immigrants was 65 percent and 81 percent below that of native-born Americans, respectively. The homicide arrest rate for native-born Americans was about 5.4 per 100,000 natives, about 46 percent higher than the illegal immigrant homicide arrest rate of 3.7 per 100,000. Related to this, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services recently released data that showed the arrest rate for DACA recipients about 46 percent below that of the resident non-DACA population. (Emphasis added.)

Why are immigrant-heavy cities safer? Listen to Balko:

"Overall, immigrants have a stake in this country, and they recognize it," Northeastern University's Levin says. "They're really an exceptional sort of American. They come here having left their family and friends back home. They come at some cost to themselves in terms of security and social relationships. They are extremely success-oriented, and adjust very well to the competitive circumstances in the United States." Economists Kristin Butcher and Anne Morrison Piehl argue that the very process of migration tends to select for people with a low potential for criminality.

Immigrants are not criminals and foreigners are not enemies. Quite the opposite, in fact.