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The truth about illegal immigration and crime

“You’re not safe in Joe Biden’s America.”

— tagline of Trump campaign ad posted on social media

Donald Trump’s presidential campaign moved quickly to tie the killing of a Georgia nursing student, allegedly by a Venezuelan migrant who entered the country illegally in 2022, to the surge of undocumented immigrants at the southern border under the Biden administration. His campaign posted a video that, with pounding music, combines news clips about the case with clips of Biden administration officials assuring people that the border was secure. It ends with the blunt message above.

Nevermind that violent crime rates, especially for homicide in large cities, have fallen sharply during Biden’s presidency, after a surge during the pandemic. Trump, as he often did during his presidency, is using anecdotal evidence to make an emotional case against undocumented immigrants.

Trump is drawing on a long history of anti-immigrant rhetoric.

A 2020 study, published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, analyzed 200,000 congressional speeches and 5,000 presidential communications on immigration since 1880, when a wave of Chinese immigrants led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that barred Chinese laborers. When lawmakers spoke about immigration, their speeches were twice as likely as their speeches on other topics to mention words related to crime.

Moreover, the study found “stark differences” in how lawmakers discussed European and non-European groups, with “more implicitly dehumanizing metaphors” used to describe Chinese, Mexicans and other non-Europeans. “There is also a striking similarity in the use of explicit frames, with a greater emphasis on ‘crime,’ ‘labor,’ and ‘legality’ for the non-Europeans and less on ‘family,’ ‘contributions,’ ‘victims,’ and ‘culture,’” the study said.

Since the late 1970s, the study found a significant shift in the way Republicans talk about immigration; it is now as negative as it was in the 1920s, an era of strict immigration quotas. As for Trump, he was the first president whose immigration language was more negative than that of the average member of his own party.

But here’s the rub: There is little evidence that immigrants — or even undocumented immigrants — cause more crime. Still, there is enough ambiguity in the data — or so little hard data — that it’s difficult to point to conclusive findings that would change opinions.

“Many politicians, law enforcement personnel and ordinary citizens are nonetheless incensed because this person should not have been in the country and thus capable of committing a crime,” said Michael Light, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who has published several studies showing undocumented immigrants are not more crime-prone than native-born Americans. “This view that the person’s undocumented status is an aggravating factor is also likely a reason why these crimes generate such strong responses.”

Let’s try to separate fiction from fact.

This is uncertain now, though the number is a relatively small percentage of the U.S. population.

As of mid-2021, the Migration Policy Institute, a D.C. think tank that does research and analysis to improve immigration and integration policies, estimated from a U.S. census survey that there are 11.2 million undocumented immigrants. But that data has a two-year lag and does not capture the recent surge at the border.

Statistics from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Homeland Security Statistics indicate that since the start of February 2021, just after Biden took office, and the end of September 2023, about 3.1 million migrants came across the U.S.-Mexico border and have no confirmed departure from the United States. Another 357,000 people flew into the United States through the Cuban, Haitian, Nicaraguan and Venezuelan parole program. Also, an uncertain number of Ukrainian and Afghan refugees have entered the United States.

Moreover, we estimate that at least 1.6 million “got-aways” — people who were spotted by Border Control but were not captured — entered the country through September. (This estimate, which tracks with leaked internal administration data, assumes the Biden administration maintained a 78 percent apprehension rate, as previous administrations did.)

That adds up to 5 million more people since Biden took office, but it would be wrong to simply add that figure to 11.2 million. There is an overlap of about five months in 2021, when some unauthorized immigrants would have died, left the United States or possibly obtained legal status.

The United States has a population of about 330 million, so one can assume the undocumented share would be between 3.5 and 4.5 percent.

There is strong evidence that all immigrants — in the United States legally or otherwise — are more law-abiding than native-born American citizens. Most immigrants are motivated to do well in their new country, especially if they bring skills that can enhance local economies, and so there is little incentive to break the law.

Graham Ousey, a criminologist at the College of William & Mary, and Charis Kubrin, a criminologist at the University of California at Irvine, surveyed more than two decades of research on immigration and crime for their 2023 book, “Immigration and Crime: Taking Stock.” The results varied depending on survey design and scope, but generally they found “that long-standing concerns about immigration as a major source of crime are unfounded.” In fact, communities with more immigration tend to have less crime, especially violent crimes like homicide. They also found that immigrants are less involved in crime as both offenders and victims compared to the native-born, including the children of immigrants.

Similarly, the January update of a 2023 survey using census data led by Ran Abramitzky, a Stanford University economist, found that as a group, male immigrants over the last 150 years have had lower incarceration rates than people who were born in the United States — and that incarceration rates of immigrants have dropped since 1960.

Immigrant men today are 60 percent less liked to be incarcerated — a decline that occurred among immigrants from all regions — even though recent immigrants have characteristics associated with being snared by the criminal justice system, such as being younger, more likely not to be White, have lower incomes and are less educated. The study, however, notes that the relative decline might reflect “deeper structural forces disproportionately affecting low educated US-born men” rather than improvement by immigrants.

The evidence becomes murkier when you try to drill down to crime by undocumented immigrants. Federal prisons record whether an immigrant is a noncitizen, but they are only a small fraction of the overall prison population. (About 140 law enforcement agencies in half of the states cooperate in a controversial U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement program to identify undocumented immigrants in their facilities for possible transfer to federal custody.) Only one state, Texas, records and keeps the immigration statuses of those entering the criminal justice system (more on that below), making it difficult to make broad conclusions.

Ousey and Kubrin, in their book, say that while there have been only a few studies focused on crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, the findings are consistent with the idea that immigrants do not commit more crimes than nonimmigrants. “Results from this small but growing literature are beginning to converge on the conclusion that fears about undocumented immigrants driving crime rates up are, essentially, unfounded,” they write.

One exception was a 2008 study that found a link between undocumented immigrants and identity theft. “The states with the highest ID theft rates tend to be those that have the highest percentages of undocumented immigrants,” the study said. Most of the identity-theft cases linked to undocumented immigrants involved a simple motive — the need to steal a Social Security number to hold a job and open a bank account in the United States.

Available data indicates that a relatively small percentage of undocumented immigrants have committed crimes (excluding the fact that they are in the country without authorization). As of September, DHS says, there were 6.2 million people on the “non-detained docket,” which means they live in the United States while their immigration cases are pending or removal is deferred for other reasons. Of that number, nearly 620,000, or 10 percent, have a criminal conviction or pending criminal charges, according to data analyzed by the House Judiciary Committee. The nature of those crimes is not clear. (The FBI estimates that about 30 percent of the adult U.S. population has a criminal record, such as a felony arrest or conviction, though the figure also includes some misdemeanors.)

In 2015, the Migration Policy Institute estimated that a small percentage of undocumented immigrants had felony or serious misdemeanor convictions. About 3 percent had felony convictions and 4 percent had serious misdemeanor convictions. That’s lower than the overall population of the United States, where a 2017 study found that about 8 percent have felony convictions.

Both Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute and a team led by Light have delved deep into unique data on inmate immigration status maintained by the Texas Department of Public Safety. People arrested in Texas have their fingerprints sent to DHS to determine immigration status. But some people in the country illegally have never been encountered by authorities and thus their fingerprints are not on file. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice conducts a further investigation to determine whether someone in prison is in the country legally. The result is an unusually rich insight into the immigration status of people arrested and incarcerated in the state.

Nowrasteh, starting in 2018, wrote a series of reports that showed the conviction rates for serious crimes in Texas were much lower for undocumented immigrants than native-born Americans. Light, in a 2020 report, concluded that, in Texas, there are significantly lower felony arrest rates among undocumented immigrants compared to legal immigrants.

Their findings came under attack from the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports stricter immigration limits and a merit-based immigration system. CIS says that because the investigation into an inmate’s immigration status is ongoing, the data is not static and the number of undocumented immigrants rises over time. “Given sufficient time for data collection, it appears that illegal immigrants have above average conviction rates for homicide and sexual assault, while they have lower rates for robbery and drugs,” CIS said in 2022.

Nowrasteh told The Fact Checker some of this critique was correct, but said that CIS erred as well because some of the data it analyzed was double-counted. Some inmates were identified by DHS but then also included in the list provided by the Texas investigators, he said.

Nowrasteh on Wednesday published a new report that relied on fresh data on homicide convictions that he said eliminated double-counting. It confirmed that undocumented immigrants had a lower homicide conviction rate (2.4 per 100,000 undocumented immigrants) than native-born Americans (2.8 per 100,000). Legal immigrants had the lowest homicide conviction rate — 1.1 per 100,000 legal immigrants.

Steve Camarota, CIS research director, said the organization is “confident in our results.” Loann Garcia, senior director of the Texas crime records division, said in an email that “the data can get confusing as we have many ways to pull data,” so the results will change depending on how a researcher’s request is framed.

The battle over the numbers indicates how, with limited data to assess, the results can remain subject to dispute and interpretation.

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This post appeared first on The Washington Post