Disentangling Drugs and Immigration

borderThe rhetoric surrounding immigration has reached another dramatic peak. Iowa Representative Steve King has stated that the bulk of immigrants, “weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”

It is tempting to dismiss King’s comments, given his over-the-top language and lack of data to support his assertion that immigration is a vehicle for the drug trade. However King does bring up an important issue – drugs.

Each year thousands of lives are lost to drug overdoses and drug related gun violence. And then there’s the material cost, more than $25 billion is currently spent by our government to reduce drug use and address its consequences.

The issue of drugs is a valid concern, although King’s point is invalid because it links two separate issues; immigration and drugs. But to folks who are not actively pro-immigrant or don’t pay close attention to the issue of immigration, or drugs for that matter, it isn’t a stretch to see how the two issues could be bundled.

The majority of immigrants to the U.S. come from Mexico. The majority of drugs also come through Mexico. But correlation is not causation and the phenomenon of immigration is not the cause of America’s problem with drugs.

The cause for the flourishing drug trade is the insatiable appetite of the United States for drugs. Americans spend an estimated $20 to $30 billion on drugs each year. The United States’ drug problem is caused by its demand. Expressed differently, the cause of America’s drug problem is not Juan the immigrant coming to fill a cantaloupe-picking job.

But the problem of drugs is easily hitched onto that of immigration because our government (the Obama administration and previous ones) does not address the issue of drugs head on. For example, earlier this summer President Obama met with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. The focus of this meeting was economics with the issue of drugs conspicuously absent.

Like with any drug addiction, the first step to resolution is accepting there is a problem. The United States has failed to properly face up to its drug problem. Aside from admitting that the problem is homegrown and not the fault of Mexico or Mexican immigrants, the U.S. government has denied efforts to manage its problem in the form of drug legalization. Until the U.S. does something to kick or manage its addiction, drugs will continue to be a monkey on the country’s back.

Now returning to the issue of immigration. Until the issue of drugs is addressed head on, it is going to continue to weigh down immigration. Immigration by itself is a contentious issue and one that has many critics based on issues such as job competition of lack of immigrant assimilation. Throw in drugs and immigration reform is doomed.

victoria defrancesco sotoAs I’ve written before, drugs are the political white elephant in the room. And for immigration to get a clear path forward, the issue of drugs must be acknowledged. It isn’t an easy task because it requires recognizing a policy failure, but by accepting this policy failure immigration doesn’t end up taking the fall.

In Rep. King’s world, you can kill two birds with one stone. Regrettably it is not that easy. Immigration and drugs must be addressed separately and a good place to start is with what is already on the table: Comprehensive immigration reform.

Victoria Defrancesco Soto

Photo: Brian Biery

Friday, 16 August 2013

Published by the LA Progressive on August 17, 2013
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About Victoria DeFrancesco Soto

Dr. Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University and a Faculty Fellow at Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research. She received her Ph.D. from Duke University in 2007 during which time she was a National Science Foundation Fellow. DeFrancesco Soto was recently named one of the top 12 scholars in the country by Diverse magazine.

Victoria’s research analyzes how human thought and emotion shapes political behavior. Her academic work focuses on: campaigns and elections, political marketing, race and ethnic politics, and immigration. Her academic research has been widely published in scholarly journals and edited volumes. In 2008, Dr. DeFrancesco Soto was Northwestern University’s principal investigator for the Big Ten Battleground Poll, a public opinion survey of voters for the 2008 Presidential election. She is currently working on a book manuscript that analyzes the emergence of conservative feminism.