Three Things Americans Don't Need to Worry About
The United States is not being overrun by illegal aliens, is not running out of oil or natural gas, and is not being sucked into the vortex of Mexican cartel violence along the border.
In fact, illegal immigration is at a 40-year low, oil production is at an eight-year high and U.S. cities along the Mexican border are among the safest in the nation.
All this might come as news to anyone who has closely followed this year's presidential primaries, whose general theme seemed to be that America is circling the drain.
To help lift the national mood, here are three things you can remove from your worry list.
Virtually all the GOP presidential candidates have talked about illegal immigration in starkly negative terms, with the presumptive nominee, Mitt Romney, proposing further crackdowns so undocumented immigrants "self deport." But the numbers suggest this rhetoric has been overtaken by events.
Apprehensions of illegal aliens by the U.S. Border Patrol have hit their lowest number since President Richard Nixon was in the White House. They totaled 340,252 in 2011, which may seem like a large number, even for a country of 313 million people.
But these border apprehensions, which experts consider one of the most reliable indicators of unauthorized immigration flows, actually peaked in 2000 at 1.68 million and were still more than 1 million in 2006.
In other words, our best measure of illegal border crossings went down 80 percent in a decade.
Theories abound for this stunning drop. The Pew Hispanic Center recently pointed to a weak U.S. economy and the increased costs of illegal crossings as reducing, perhaps temporarily, the pull factors for illegal immigrants. Others note that a declining birth rate and rising economy in Mexico, historically the top source of undocumented immigrants, have eroded the push factors, perhaps permanently.
One highly unlikely explanation for the drop is that the Border Patrol is simply missing more illegal aliens in the Sonoran Desert. In fact, with four times the personnel and 11 times the budget of the early 1990s, the Border Patrol is more effective than ever.
While estimates of the number of unauthorized immigrants already in the U.S. still hover above 11 million, that number has edged lower over the last two years, meaning at least as many illegal aliens have left the U.S. as have entered.
In short, fewer people are trying to sneak into the United States, and some of those here illegally are going home. The undocumented have been quietly "self deporting" even without Romney's help.
What about energy supplies? Romney and Newt "$2.50-a-gallon-gasoline" Gingrich have pilloried the Obama administration for allegedly pushing up gasoline prices by undermining U.S. hydrocarbon production.
But U.S. oil production hit an eight-year high in 2011, and natural gas production, driven by the shale gas revolution, has never been greater in the history of the republic.
Oil prices indeed spiked in the last few months, pulling gasoline prices along with them. But the rise was generally attributed to speculation and tensions in the Middle East, not a lack of supply.
Campaign rhetoric to the contrary, we are not running out of oil.
Finally, border crime. Officials in Arizona and Texas, including Texas governor and erstwhile presidential candidate Rick Perry, have attacked the federal government for what they say are elevated levels of local crime driven by Mexican drug cartels and illegal immigrants. Here again, statistics tell a different story.
El Paso, Texas, for example, sits across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Juarez, the epicenter of cartel violence in Mexico. Yet its violent crime rate in 2010, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Report, was one-quarter of the national average for cities its size, and less than half the rate for all of Texas. El Paso is also home to a U.S. Army base and several law enforcement headquarters, which may help stem crime. But other Texas border towns also have lower-than-expected crime rates.
Similarly, San Diego, which looks out on Tijuana, Mexico, had a violent crime rate less than a third of that of large U.S. cities in 2010, and half the California rate as a whole. As a national conference of U.S. police chiefs heard recently, San Diego had one-seventh the number of gun-related crimes — by one measure — as Philadelphia, which is about the same size, but a long way from the border.
That so many Americans believe the border region is more "Hunger Games" than "Toy Story" "is understandable in light of the often alarmist rhetoric employed in public discussions about border security," said a 2011 report by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Whether presidential candidates really lie awake at night worrying about these issues is hard to say. What is certain is that if you are losing any sleep over them, you can stop now.
This commentary was first published in The Chicago Tribune on May 2, 20102.