The southwestern border with Mexico is often depicted as a dangerous, lawless place. During the vice-presidential debate, both candidates sounded off about a need for greater U.S. border security, thus contributing to the impression that the border region is unsafe (while also distracting from the real issue of comprehensive immigration reform). Would you believe that the border city of El Paso, Texas, is safer than D.C.? Indeed, El Paso, the largest urban area along the border after the San Diego metropolitan area, is safer, according to Hispanic residents’ perceptions and official crime statistics.
The border region contains some of the poorest areas in the United States. For the most part, it is a safe place. In a survey of 919 Hispanics in El Paso, only 3 percent of respondents reported feeling unsafe. These findings are from a survey conducted around 2012 at the height of drug war violence occurring in nearby Northern Mexico. More recent surveys of residents’ views show similar findings. By comparison, nearly one out of three Hispanics living in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods in the D.C. area reported feeling unsafe in their neighborhoods. These findings, from an American University survey conducted earlier this year, were published this week in a report, Diversity in the D.C. Area.
Even so, the ‘dangerous border’ myth lives on, stoking fear, halting attempts at immigration reform, and affecting the daily lives of Hispanics. In the survey of D.C.-area residents, 86 percent of U.S.-born Hispanics reported knowing someone at risk of being deported. Nearly two in five of those U.S.-born Hispanics said that the fear of deportation of either themselves or their loved ones affected their daily lives “a lot.” Since U.S.-born Hispanics should not have reason to fear being deported, these findings highlight the toll that the fear of deportation takes on both U.S. citizens as well as their loved ones who may be undocumented immigrants.
Given the political climate and spread of misinformation, it is easy to understand how people in places far from the U.S.-Mexico border can harbor unwarranted fears about an unsafe border. Myths and stereotypes about what life along the border is like abound, but they are false, and generalize from a few negative events that are not the norm. They are distractions from undertaking comprehensive immigration reform, which would improve the security and well-being of Latinos and all Americans by expanding civil liberties, increasing trust in police, and bringing undocumented residents out of the shadows.
Castañeda is an assistant professor of sociology at American University where he is an affiliate member of the Center on Latin American and Latino Studies and Center on Health, Risk, and Society. He studies immigration to the U.S., France, and Spain.
Bader is an assistant professor of sociology at American University, fellow in the School of Public Affairs’ Metropolitan Policy Center and member of the Center on Health, Risk, and Society. He studies how patterns of racial segregation have changed in post-Civil Rights America.
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