Panic! At the border.

This is part of a semi-regular series busting law enforcement myths.

The “border” – meaning the border between the U.S. and Mexico – has long been a site of intense moral panic. Last week, Texas Governor Greg Abbott simultaneously proclaimed Texas was “100% open” and blamed the Biden administration for immigration policies that have, he says, allowed for the spread of coronavirus. (There is no evidence that migrants are bringing COVID-19 to the U.S., which now has the highest infection rate in the world.)

The new sheriff group, Protect American Now USA, has also focused on immigration as a core issue. Of course, immigration was also a primary talking point of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), which elided the overt racism of the Posse Comitatus movement with out-of-control xenophobia. So, the emphasis is nothing new.  What is interesting is the new moral panic twist within a moral panic. Not only do sheriffs like Protect American Now’s founder Sheriff Mark Lamb oppose immigration as a general matter, they also emphasize that their concern is, in fact, about the welfare of the migrants themselves.

After a horrific crash in California, Sheriff Mark Lamb appeared on Fox News to provide “insight” into the complex moral issues. “We’ve seen pursuits left and right,” he said. “This is something we deal with on a daily basis on the border.” Lamb’s rhetoric is largely so empty that listeners can pour whatever prejudice they want into it.

In another exchange, Lamb claims that Trump’s immigration policies “reducing human trafficking and drug trafficking.”

Elizabeth MacDonald, the Fox host, prompts him: “We’ve been reporting this as a humanitarian issue.” She goes on to say we should be worried about the children. THE CHILDREN.

Lamb: “You’re exactly right. This isn’t a political issue. If you care about human being and human rights, you should absolutely care about border security….The people that come here, they’re raping the women, they’re using children as pawns…not to mention the drugs they are pouring into our communities…We won’t tolerate it as sheriffs!”

Elsewhere, Sheriff Lamb has described immigrants as “wolves.” “It brings drugs and human trafficking,” he said in February. (In his mind, all undocumented immigrants are affiliated with cartels; there’s no differentiation between who is actually immigrating, neither in terms of country, ethnicity, or reason for migration.)

Just as sheriffs once used Black Codes to justify the arrest and jailing of freed enslaved people, sheriffs now use the “war on drugs” to explain why they must police immigration. But to what extent is immigration actually about drugs or human trafficking? The actual data on this doesn’t seem to prove this point at all. While there are drug cartels in Mexico, and there is a huge amount of violence in Central America, most people coming to the U.S. are immigrating to be reunited with family members and get a better life. Immigrants already living in the U.S. are much less likely to commit crimes than non-immigrants. Information about immigration apprehensions is not readily available to the public, and, since law enforcement can pick up and detain anyone they see “crossing the border,” there’s no requirement to explain whether people are being detained for trafficking (drug or human) or just walking.

Immigration as an abstract issue conveniently blurs the lines between the culture war, government ineptitude, and law enforcement, making it prime sheriff bait. As part of the culture war, “immigration” reflects anxieties in white America over changing demographics and various relics that are deemed important to maintain an “American culture,” which is distinctly defined by the white middle-class. In Arizona, the specter of immigration has always loomed large and subsumed the anxieties of the day.

This goes way back. During the 19th century and early 20th, border enforcement in the West justified arrests by saying that Chinese immigrants were illegally crossing the border (or being smuggled) to find work. (These were the days of the grossly racist Chinese Exclusion Act.) In 2007, Sheriff Joe Arpaio used H1N1 (aka “Swine Flu”) as a reason to increase immigration enforcement, even appearing in a surgical mask to impress the danger upon people. (“They check fruits and vegetables, how come they don’t check people? No one talks about that! They’re all dirty,” he told a GQ reporter.) And when people were worried about Islamic extremism, Arizona sheriffs and law enforcement claimed they found prayer rugs and copies of the Koran at the border, by way of arguing that Al Queda and ISIS operatives were coming from Mexico.

Immigration is also an opportunity for sheriffs to show what they view as their unique expertise. As Sheriff Mark Lamb says multiple times, “We deal with it on a daily basis.” (He doesn’t define “it.” Migrants? Trafficking? Sand?) Sheriffs like Lamb tout their on-the-ground desert roaming expertise with cool helicopters, but that’s not where the bulk of immigration enforcement by sheriffs happens. Most of it happens in prosaic jails and unnecessary traffic stops where regular people are detained for ICE because they don’t have paperwork. (There are also a lot of mistakes.)

Sheriffs have actually not always been involved in immigration. Current immigration policies, which heavily rely on county jails, are creations of the Drug War. Most deportations happen as a result of bookings into county jail, which is under the control of sheriffs. The 287(g) program, which has gotten a lot of press in the last few years, allows sheriffs and other law enforcement agencies to act as immigration enforcement. This often means that they can ask questions about a person’s citizenship or make an independent assessment that someone is probably not a citizen. 287(g) is really an ineffective policy because it costs money and basically gives sheriffs reasons to racially profile people. There’s no evidence the program makes anyone safer.

When 287(g) first became active policy, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, notoriously racist, was reluctant to join. He was concerned that helping the federal government detain immigrants was contrary to the purely local nature of the county sheriff.  And, believe it or not, he once thought that being a migrant wasn’t a major crime. He changed his mind, though, when he saw it could get him more votes, forming entire units who swept communities and arrested anyone without documentation. Notably, violent crime went up during that time and no drug kingpins were arrested.

Another important aspect of immigration, one which sheriffs like Mark Lamb are less eager to discuss, is the financial benefit sheriffs incur. First, there’s the issue of grant programs like Operation Stonegarden, which give money to sheriff’s office to support “border security,” which mostly amounts to cool toys with no data necessary. Sheriff Lamb touts one success (“DANGEROUS DRUGS!” he cries in front of whirling chopper blades.), finding backpacks of meth and fentanyl but ….no actual people.

Additionally, sheriffs make money by renting jail space to ICE and U.S. Marshalls. County jails, run by sheriffs, hold the vast majority of people detained by ICE as they await a decision in their case. Those sheriffs are paid a per diem rate to hold those people. This is a lucrative business, comparatively speaking. In many counties, sheriffs advocate for even bigger jails in order to have “rooms for rent,” so to speak, arguing that this will bring needed money into the county. Most county leaders don’t question the sheriff’s pretend expertise in the matter.

There are many reasons to be concerned about the health and welfare of migrants crossing the U.S. southern border with Mexico. There are people claiming asylum who face genuine violence. There are people being held in immigration detention indefinitely until they sometimes self-deport to get out. And the U.S. deterrence strategy — which seeks to discourage migration by making it hard — drives people into more and more dangerous situations. But what the sheriffs say isn’t one of them.