Social scientists James Wilson and George Kelling introduced the "broken windows theory" nearly three decades ago. Its premise was simple: By enforcing "petty" laws, police can help create a "well-ordered" environment that discourages more serious crime.
New York proved their theory correct. As former Mayor Rudy Giuliani recently recalled: "[W]e started paying attention to the things that were being ignored. Aggressive panhandling, the squeegee operators ... the graffiti, all these things that were deteriorating the city. ... It worked because we not only got a big reduction in that, and an improvement in the quality of life, but massive reductions in homicide, and New York City turned from the crime capital of America to the safest large city in the country for five, six years in a row."
But demonstrable success in New York and elsewhere never daunted determined critics of the approach. "The most sustained attack on broken windows and NYPD achievements has not been practical or factual, but political and ideological," observed William Bratton and Kelling in a 2006 article for National Review Online. "Many social scientists are wedded to the idea that crime is caused by the structural features of a capitalist society -- especially economic injustice, racism, and poverty. They assume that true crime reduction can come only as the result of economic reform, redistribution of wealth, and elimination of poverty and racism."
The same political and ideological fault lines appear in the ongoing debate over illegal immigration, and it's pretty clear which side the Department of Homeland Security is listening to. It's not the side making common sense.
Recently, the department trumpeted its plans to take its "Secure Communities" initiative nationwide by 2013. Secure Communities targets for deportation illegal aliens who have committed serious felonies like attempted murder and big-time drug dealing. It's a laudable program, but not nearly as comprehensive as the immigration enforcement approach taken during the Bush administration.
Then-DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff made targeting gangs, drug dealers and violent criminals a priority. But he stressed that these measures were not enough. He also advocated ending "catch and release" practices (which enabled individuals picked up for immigration violations to disappear back into the community) and pressed for stronger workplace enforcement, going after both the illegal workers and the employers who intentionally hire them.
Janet Napolitano, the current DHS secretary, argues she is making better use of scarce resources by directing them at the greatest threats. But this assertion strains credulity.
First of all, if resources are scarce, why doesn't she ask for more? Even given our present fiscal difficulties, Congress had no trouble throwing an extra $600 million at border security. Why wouldn't it adequately fund immigration enforcement? Internal enforcement is just as important as border security.
Second, states and cities want to help with enforcement, but Secretary Napolitano refuses to let them. While the department is embracing Secure Communities, it is discouraging local law enforcement from participating in the 287(g) program, which allows for broader enforcement and the ability to meet public safety needs beyond violent crime.
Third, and most troubling, what's the use of putting all your eggs in one enforcement basket if it's a strategy that is bound to fail? Unless the federal government rebuilds respect for the rule of law regarding immigration and workplace enforcement, the unlawful population will never be controllable.
This is a broken-windows problem if ever there was one. No reasonable person expects the department to deport 11 million people. But it is reasonable to expect our government to make a good-faith effort to enforce the law.
James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Washington Examiner