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Originally published Friday, May 20, 2011 at 3:15 PM

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Guest columnist

Setting the record straight about Latino immigrants

Three Seattle University law school professors bust some myths about Latino immigrants in Washington state.

Special to The Times

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RECENT headlines cast America's troubled relationship with Latinos into sharp relief. Bills in Olympia and elsewhere, if enacted, would authorize the police to demand proof of citizenship from anyone whose appearance or demeanor gives grounds for suspicion. Other measures punish hiring, renting or even giving aid to the undocumented. Still others deny them the ability to obtain driver's licenses. Recently, Gov. Chris Gregoire recommended eliminating a state-subsidized health-care program for children who cannot prove they are here legally.

Why the harsh measures? A recent report by the Task Force on Race and the Criminal Justice System, including the Korematsu Center at Seattle University, suggests a reason: Latinos are being framed. As with earlier groups of immigrants on whom legions of social workers and settlement-house workers descended bent on "Americanization," society's official mythmakers are beginning to declare the newcomers a problem group. The social workers and our well-intentioned liberal colleagues have been framing this group in ways as harmful as those of the anti-immigrant screamers on Fox News.

The newcomers are not a problem. Unless one dislikes seeing brown faces and hearing an occasional burst of good-natured Spanish on a downtown sidewalk from time to time, they are in the vast majority of cases model citizens who are getting a bum rap.

In an effort to call attention to the real problem of overzealous police enforcement, the report describes Latinos as overrepresented in Washington's incarcerated population. While this may be true for other groups, it is not so for Latinos. It also plays into the hands of the anti-immigrant right.

Latinos, who make up more than 10 percent of the population of Washington, constitute 8 percent of the state's jail and prison population. They are, in short, an unusually law-abiding group. They are also very young. With an average age of 27 — nearly 14 years younger than Americans at large — their low crime rate is even more remarkable. Criminologists know that men between the ages of 17 and 30 are the most likely to offend, yet this young group is more law-abiding than practically any other.

Their low rate of crime is in line with national statistics and not the product of a numerical fluke or poor counting by Washington's jailers. Nationally, Latinos make up 15.8 percent of the population of city and county jails (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2010), while making up 16.2 percent of the general population.

The low numbers should come as no surprise. Most Latinos are Catholic, family-oriented and hardworking, with many holding down two or even three full-time jobs. Those who are undocumented have a further reason to obey the law, namely fear of arrest and deportation.

Scholars such as Harvard University's Robert P. Sampson find that areas that experience heavy immigration show a drop in the crime rate. American border cities in Arizona, Texas and California with high concentrations of Latino immigrants show very low levels of crime, too, while nationally crime has been decreasing since 1990, the very period of heaviest immigration.

What about welfare costs? Recent studies show that the group consumes fewer public services than practically any other, including whites, while contributing to local economies through their labor and taxes. This, too, should not be surprising when one considers that many of the immigrants are young, healthy, single, and came here in search of work.

Are they taking jobs that would otherwise go to citizens, including African Americans? No. In most cases they are working at jobs that others do not want and that employers find hard to fill, such as picking crops, washing dishes in restaurants, mowing lawns, installing dry wall, and processing meat and poultry. Labor economists believe that they may even be creating jobs for native-born Americans, such as supervisor of a gardening crew or maitre d' in a newly profitable restaurant.

As America's population ages, the nation will need new workers to make the beds and empty the pans at the nursing homes housing an aging population. By the same token, the Social Security system will need to find additional workers to contribute to its shrinking fund. Only a few years ago, nine active workers making contributions to the fund supported each retiree. Today, the ratio is down to five-to-one and will soon be four-to-one. With a shrinking birthrate, America will be hard put to find new workers, if not from immigration.

If Latinos are hardworking, commit little crime, consume few social services, yet contribute to public coffers through their taxes and payments to Social Security, why are so many ready to pronounce them a problem group?

Times are hard, and the threat of terrorism keeps many Americans on edge.

Latinos, particularly recent immigrants, could use a helping hand, especially while getting settled. But framing the group as a significant source of crime and disruption, when it is not, ensures that this help won't arrive. It adds to undeserved fears while forfeiting the many benefits that Latinos' presence could bring.

Richard Delgado, Carmen G. Gonzalez and Jean Stefancic are professors of law at Seattle University.

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