Commentary: The unsafe border myth and illegal immigration

Illegal immigration.

It figures that a fighter such as Arturo Venegas would go toe to toe with one of America's most divisive issues when he could be relaxing in his retirement years.

Yet here is Venegas, lobbying on immigration from here in Sacramento, nearly a decade removed from his historic, if turbulent, run as this city's first nonwhite police chief.

At 62, Venegas is a mellower version of the tough hombre recruited to lead a Sacramento police force leery of the first "outsider" to be chief in 50 years – which Venegas became when he landed with a thud from Fresno in 1993.

You talk about culture clash? Here was a guy named Arturo, who was born in Mexico, becoming the top cop of a force accustomed to leaders of Irish ancestry named Jack.

In 10 years as chief, the Sacramento community largely embraced Venegas while the police union largely clashed with him.

His department lost a reverse discrimination suit costing the city more than $800,000. His department became state-of-the-art under his watch. His successors as chief – made better by him – continue to run Sac PD with distinction. Daniel Hahn, a Venegas protégé, is about to become the new chief in Roseville.

Venegas made Sac PD smarter, more responsive, more professional and better equipped.

So why confront immigration when the dynamics of the issue are more polarized than Sac PD's management ranks when Venegas swaggered into town?

"Look, nobody is saying law enforcement is for illegal immigration," Venegas said. "We are for legal immigration. But let's have a sensible dialogue."

In many ways, law enforcement leaders are the most credible counterbalance to politicians currently seizing on immigration fears for political gain.

In the current climate, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer was claiming that headless corpses were turning up in the Arizona desert. The implication was that the border region was rife with runaway crime due to illegal immigration, a myth that many believe.

Brewer later was forced to acknowledge her claim was false, but the damage was done.

Venegas and other law enforcement leaders are speaking out against this vitriol because the politicians are making it harder for the cops to do their jobs. In Arizona and other states, politicians like Brewer are trying to saddle front-line cops with the task of deporting immigrants.

Last week, Venegas traveled to Austin, Texas, to join other top cops in lobbying against restrictive immigration laws that create fear in immigrant communities and discourage cooperation with law enforcement.

On Feb. 4, Venegas published a widely read piece on immigration in the Huffington Post, where he took on the fallacy that crime was rampant in border cities.

Let me repeat Venegas' thesis: The major border cities in America are among the safest in the country. Mexican border cities are horribly violent. There were 3,000 homicides in 2010 just across the border from El Paso in Ciudad Juárez. But that violence is not seeping across the border into the United States.

According to FBI statistics, there were only five homicides in El Paso in 2010. A city of roughly 620,000, El Paso has about 150,000 more residents than Sacramento. Yet last year, there were 33 homicides in Sacramento.

"Our southern border (along with the states it touches) is being used a pawn for politics rather than progress," wrote Venegas in the Huffington Post. It's true. The killing of one rancher in Arizona or one cop in Houston creates a firestorm that illegals are running rampant along our borders.

Cops and former cops like Venegas will spend 2011 trying any way they can to set the record straight. The goal, Venegas said, is to push for changes in immigration laws that allow people to enter the United States legally to satisfy American labor needs.

By doing so, Venegas will incur the wrath of the deport-them-all crowd.

I asked him recently if some of his Huffington Post hate mail disturbed him. His smile said: No (expletive) way.

This is a guy who came to America legally with a green card and, at 17, chose to join the Army and go to Vietnam rather than return to Mexico – as was his right. By contrast, some of Venegas' generation fled to Canada in 1960s, rather than go to Vietnam.

Upon returning to America at 20, Venegas took the oath of citizenship in January 1969 because he wanted to build his life here. "I am an immigrant, I make no bones about it," Venegas said. "But I became an American by choice because this is the greatest country on the planet."

Venegas' life and work prove his point.

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