Sarah Palin, big political lies and the U.S. immigration debate

By Bernd Debusmann
July 26, 2010

The prize for the biggest political lie of 2009 went to Sarah Palin, the darling of the American right, for injecting fictitious “death panels” into the health reform debate. This year, fact-benders are hard at work to control the debate on another controversial topic, immigration. Competition is intense.

It comes from opponents of immigration reforms that would  simultaneously offer better control of the 2,000-mile U.S-Mexico border, a new visa system, and a path to legal status for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, the majority Mexicans, who are already in the country. The official term for this is “comprehensive immigration reform.”

But influential politicians insist there must be no reform before the border is entry-proof to illegals, and they portray the frontier as a virtual war zone, on both sides of the line.

There is Arizona’s governor, Jan Brewer, who is talking about the discovery of decapitated bodies on the American side of the border. There is Senator John McCain, who has said violence along the border is the worst he has ever seen. There is a letter 12 members of congress (10 Republicans, two Democrats) wrote to President Barack Obama saying border violence is increasing “at an alarming pace.”

None of this stands up to factual scrutiny though perhaps none of it is quite at the toxic level of the claim Palin put on her Facebook page last year — that the government’s proposed health care reforms included setting up panels that would decide whether elderly or disabled Americans were worthy of continued health care or should be let to die.

This was entirely fictitious but it “set political debate on fire,” said the Pulitzer prize-winning fact-check site Politifact.com, which rated the death panels the biggest political lie of 2009, based on a poll of 5,000 readers. The death panel canard contributed to the rapid growth of the anti-government tea party movement and threw doubt over the passage of the health reform bill. It finally passed in March, against unanimous Republican opposition.

On the emotional issue of immigration, perception trumps reality and the widely-held perception is of an “unsecured border” (McCain’s phrase) and a cross-border invasion by criminals rather than people in search of work and a better life. There has been no corroboration of Governor Brewer’s claim that 87 percent of illegal border crossers have prior criminal records.

The perception that the federal government has failed to fulfill its obligation to keep illegal immigrants out prompted Arizona, the main gateway for unauthorized entry, to pass its own law, the toughest in the country. It makes it a crime to be in Arizona without identifiation papers. The Obama administration says immigration is a federal prerogative, not a matter for a state to decide, and is trying to strike down the law which is scheduled to take effect on July 29.

BORDER PATROL DOUBLED IN SIZE

Early in July, in his first major speech since taking office, Obama described the present immigration system as broken, complained that reform had been held hostage to political posturing and special-interest wrangling and said that “the southern border is more secure than at any time in the past 20 years.”

Statistics bear this out. Since 2001, the number of Border Patrol agents has more than doubled, from 9,000 to more than 20,000. According to FBI crime numbers, violent crimes in states along the border have dropped steadily over the past decade and are among the lowest in the country now.

That is in stark contrast with sharply escalating violence on the Mexican side of the border, where beheadings and gun battles have become routine, often within sight of the U.S. cities on the north bank of the Rio Bravo. In Ciudad Juarez, the main battle front in Mexico’s drug wars, the daily death toll has been running at eight since the beginning of the year. Across the bridge, El Paso is one of the safest cities in the U.S.

Even Phoenix, Arizona’s capital, counts among the safest big cities in the country, according to FBI statistics. But the perception that there are waves of violent criminals storming across the border is becoming so widespread that 78 percent of respondents in a CBS/New York Times poll last May said more should be done to keep illegal immigrants out.

Doing so has a perverse unintended consequence, according to Doris Meissner, who headed the Immigration and Naturalization Service for seven years. In an opinion piece co-signed by another former INS official, James Ziglar, she wrote in the Washington Post: “Today, our borders are more secure than ever – so those here illegally stay because re-entry is perilous.”

But displays of armed force play well in American politics, which is why Obama ordered the deployment of 1,200 National Guard troops to the four states bordering Mexico. They are scheduled to arrive on August 1.

And when will the president begin to tackle comprehensive immigration reform? Campaigning for the presidency, he said he would take on the issue within his first year. That deadline is seven months past. No new timeline has been set.

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