President Calderón’s visit to the United States yesterday continues to highlight issues of immigration, border control and crime. Presidents Calderón and Obama made the important point that we should address, not conflate, these two important issues. Judging from President Obama’s remarks yesterday, he seems to understand that the horrific violence which currently afflicts our southern neighbor is a complex problem that requires a multi-faceted solution—that the violence is not about immigration but about the flow of guns, drugs and money across the borders. President Obama reaffirmed his administration’s commitment “to stem the southbound flow of American guns and money” and to develop “new approaches to reducing the demand for drugs in our country,” pledging to keep up law-enforcement pressure on the criminal gangs that “traffic in drugs, guns, and people.”

A notable aspect of President Obama’s remarks is that his discussion of violence in Mexico was separate and distinct from his discussion of comprehensive immigration reform and the need to create a pathway to legal status for unauthorized immigrants already living in the United States. The distinction reflects the fact that unauthorized immigrants are not the cause of the violence which plagues so many communities in Mexico. This distinction stands in marked contrast to the supporters of “get tough” anti-immigrant laws, such as Arizona’s SB 1070, who frequently cite scattered episodes of violence spilling over the border from Mexico as a justification for their legislation. But cracking down on unauthorized immigrants in the United States is not going to diminish violence in border communities because unauthorized immigrants aren’t the perpetrators, criminal cartels are.

In fact, unauthorized immigrants tend to be the victims of violence at the hands of unscrupulous smugglers who all too often hold them hostage in “safe houses” in Phoenix and other border cities until they pay whatever amount of money the smugglers demand. Ending this sort of violence involves not only cracking down on the human smugglers who inflict it, but drying up the flow of unauthorized immigrants by creating sufficient avenues for legal immigration that accommodate actual demand.

However, Obama’s rhetoric and his agencies’ actions may be at odds. Recent reports show that DHS prosecutions of drug and gun violations are down while low level immigration violators are being prosecuted at record levels. A Warren Institute report highlighted the impact of Operation Streamline (a program that focuses on prosecuting border crossers) on immigration enforcement highlights how increased focus on nonviolent border crossers has taken resources away from investigating smuggling operations. A TRAC report shows that federal immigration prosecutions rose to record levels during fiscal year 2009 and that a shift in priorities has created the largest number of federal immigration prosecutions of non-violent border crossers ever. The trade-off is while the federal government spends billions of dollars prosecuting non-violent immigration violators, more serious criminals involved in drugs, weapons, and organized crime face a lower probability of prosecution.

This seems like the opposite of what America should be doing. Our resources must be focused on the most dangerous criminals and the people running the smuggling cartels and not on first time border crossers. We need to ask whether increased numbers of deportations and prosecutions are really solving the problem, or whether we should focus on quality, not quantity, and spend critical resources on those who are creating the violence along the border.

Photo by womenofcaliber.