To hear some politicians tell it, a frightening reality justifies Arizona's controversial immigration law:
• A rising number of increasingly violent undocumented immigrants are pouring across the Mexican border, most of them drug mules.
• Undocumented immigrant women are purposely "dropping" anchor babies who automatically gain citizenship and give their relatives a future foothold on citizenship.
• Undocumented immigrant criminals are beheading people in the Arizona desert and holding enough people ransom to saddle Phoenix with the unenviable title of No. 2 kidnapping capital of the world.
• All the while, the narrative goes, the government is methodically reducing funding for border security.
Here's the truth. Illegal immigration is down. Violent crime in Arizona is down. Funding for border security is up. There is no evidence that "drop-and-leave" anchor babies are some sort of purposeful, growing phenomenon.
And for the record, there have been no confirmed beheadings in the Arizona desert. Not one.
A certain amount of misinformation and distortion colors every political debate — particularly on immigration.
"These kinds of things have been said throughout American history about every successive wave of immigrants," said Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Report for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
But Potok and other immigration experts say the inflammatory, fear-driven rhetoric is not just nipping at the extreme edges of the emotional national debate on immigration; it's largely driving it.
All of which led New York Times columnist Gail Collins to question recently "whether crime by undocumented immigrants created public fear, which then led to the Arizona law and (Gov. Jan) Brewer's current popularity. Or whether politicians, in search of a winning issue, created the fear all by themselves."
PolitiFact has sorted through many of the most popular distortions. Here's a quick tour:
Beheadings in the desert.
"Our law enforcement agencies have found bodies in the desert, either buried or just lying out there, that have been beheaded," Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer told a Phoenix TV reporter in June.
That came as surprising news to Dr. Eric Peters, deputy chief medical examiner for Pima County, which has the largest border with Mexico of any county in Arizona.
"We probably have handled the most deaths from border crossings," Peters told PolitiFact. "We have had approximately 1,700 deaths in the last 10 years. We haven't had a single death due to a beheading or having a beheading associated with it."
Other medical examiners and law enforcement officials who work along the Arizona border echoed Peters: no beheadings.
In a Sept. 1 debate, Brewer's Democratic opponent, Terry Goddard, called Brewer's beheading comments "fear-mongering."
Two days later, Brewer walked back her comment in an interview with the Associated Press. "That was an error, if I said that," Brewer said. "I misspoke, but you know, let me be clear, I am concerned about the border region because it continues to be reported in Mexico that there's a lot of violence going on, and we don't want that going into Arizona."
Escalating cartel-related violence — including beheadings — has been widely reported in northern Mexico. Some cartels are involved in cross-border smuggling. Law enforcement remains wary of spillover crime, but so far, there has been little evidence of it. In fact, FBI crime statistics show that violent crime fell 11 percent from 2004 to 2008 in Arizona. We rated Brewer's claim Pants on Fire.
The majority of undocumented immigrants coming up from Mexico are drug mules.
This is another claim from Brewer. It's true that drug smuggling and human smuggling have become increasingly intertwined, and that sometimes, undocumented immigrants have been coerced into serving as drug couriers. But Brewer's contention that a "majority" of undocumented immigrants crossing the border are drug mules is undercut by federal prosecution statistics and the experts we spoke to. We rated Brewer's statement False.
Phoenix is the No. 2 kidnapping capital of the world.
Keeping up with this one is like playing Whac-A-Mole. You knock down one politician for saying it, and another one pops up saying it somewhere else.
Among those who have cited this bogus statistic: U.S. Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain of Arizona; Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst; and Ohio state Rep. Courtney Combs. False, False … and False.
While Phoenix has experienced hundreds of kidnappings over the past few years, we couldn't find reliable reports to confirm it is No. 2 in the world. Neither the FBI nor Interpol tracks that statistic. To the contrary, overseas kidnapping experts say that cities in Mexico and Latin America see significantly more kidnapping cases than Phoenix.
Who had heard of this phrase a year ago? Now it's a regular on the political talk circuit, used to describe an allegedly growing phenomenon in which pregnant women from Mexico and other countries come to the United States to deliver babies. Voila! Under the 14th Amendment, the babies are instant citizens!
Even more alarming, some Texas legislators suggested the loophole is being used by America's enemies to raise terrorists with U.S. passports.
We checked a comment from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who proposed amending the Constitution to make clear that babies born in the United States do not automatically receive U.S. citizenship. "People come here to have babies," Graham said. "They come here to drop a child. It's called 'drop and leave.' "
It's true that many undocumented immigrants are having children in the United States. However, our review of immigration data did not demonstrate that "drop and leave" is any kind of phenomenon. The data suggest undocumented immigrants are motivated by the search for work and a better economic standing over the long term, not quickie citizenship for U.S.-born babies. We rated Graham's comment Half True.
Obama and the Congress have systematically cut funding to border security since the Democrats took control.
U.S. Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, chairman of the House Republican Conference, earned a False rating for this claim in May.
The fact is, between 2007 (the last year of full Republican control) and now, while spending on border fencing has gone down, overall spending on border security — including more Border Patrol officers — has increased 55 percent, though President Barack Obama's proposed 2011 budget calls for a slight decrease in spending on border security.
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Some of the claims dominating the immigration debate "verge on comical in their ludicrous irresponsibility" while others — like the claims about anchor babies — are more insidious, said Judith Gans, program manager for immigration policy at the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy at the University of Arizona. They make it harder for reasoned discussion of "the underlying causes of illegal immigration, and harder to pass the laws necessary to bring the legal system into alignment with economic and demographic forces driving migration," she said.
But there's one other reality that leaves Gans doubtful such reasoned factual discussion will happen — the distortions often bolster a politician's success.