Attorney General Jeff Sessions and President Donald Trump want the public to believe that undocumented immigrants are a threat to innocent U.S. citizens. In his speech before the joint session of Congress, Trump hailed the families of victims of undocumented immigrants and pledged to create “VOICE”—Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement—a special office tasked with reporting the effects of victimization by criminal immigrants present in the United States once a quarter.
Given the initiative’s placement in the president’s speech and the genuinely tragic cases of the families there present, one couldn’t be blamed for thinking that undocumented immigrants represent a real threat to U.S. citizens and security.
Problem is: good data focused on immigrant criminality—specifically undocumented immigrant criminality—is scarce, and the data that exists do not support the level of concern and attention that the White House is giving it.
Data on incarceration rates are collected differently by federal agencies. The Department of Homeland Security has to collect incarceration data from the nation’s more than 15,000 law enforcement agencies since comprehensive statistics on illegal immigrant crime of county, state and federal jail and prison systems are not absolute figures. That complexity limits the ability of the DHS to provide accurate information on the threat of undocumented immigrants.
But here’s what we know.
- Data can often be misleading
Researchers have often relied on arrest and conviction numbers, which in certain situations and in a given jurisdiction, might see an uptick one year. For example, if a police chief or prosecutor decides to prioritize prosecution of immigration violations more than criminal behavior such as robberies and assaults, then yes, crime statistics involving immigrants will rise accordingly. And statistics would explain why this would be the case. About one-third of non-citizen federal inmates are serving time for immigration offenses—usually re-entering the country illegally after being deported—that are not covered by state law.
- Reports often do not break down the non-citizen category by immigration status
In one case, a Bureau of Justice Statistics report published in September 2015 stated that by fiscal year 2014, there were about 1.56 million prisoners in both state and federal correctional facilities, in which about 69,000—or only about 4 percent—were not U.S. citizens. By that measure—even using the estimated number of 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States—then undocumented immigrants do not represent a disproportionate number of inmates (even assuming that the full 69,000 are only undocumented immigrants and that the number doesn’t include documented immigrants and foreign nationals too). In fact, even by this measure, undocumented and documented immigrants would represent lower levels of criminality than the native-born population.
But the data also excluded non-citizen inmates in local jails under jurisdiction of state or federal correctional authorities and non-citizens in privately contracted facilities. So maybe the numbers are higher there?
- Other studies concluded by the Cato Institute and The Sentencing Project contradict crime rate statistics often cited by the administration
The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank supported by the Koch Foundation, found that among people aged 18-54, 1.53% of the native born are incarcerated; for undocumented immigrants Cato estimated the number at 0.85% and 0.47% for documented immigrants. In other words, reinforcing the point above, immigrants—documented and undocumented—represent a lower proportion of the overall incarcerated population than the native born.
The Cato Study also found that if natural-born citizens were incarcerated at the same rate as undocumented immigrants, “about 893,000 fewer native[s]-[born] would be incarcerated,” Similarly, if native-born citizens were incarcerated at the same rate as documented immigrants, 1.4 million fewer would be in prison. Similarly, the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice research and advocacy group, also found that “foreign-born residents of the United States commit crime less often than native-born citizens,” a claim supported by a 2015 update to an analysis of Census Bureau crime rate statistics from 1980, 1990 and 2000 which gave evidentiary support to the incarceration rates of native-born 18-39 year-old males to be anywhere from two to five times—higher than that of immigrants.
Two possible conclusions derive from these statistics: either immigrants—documented and undocumented—are less likely to commit crimes or they are better at avoiding arrest.
- Cities where undocumented immigrants are concentrated tend to record relatively low crime rates
According to Pew, undocumented immigrants concentrated in smaller Western and Southwestern metro areas such as McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, Texas; Salinas, Calif.; and Yuma, Ariz., experience low crime rates. In the 20 metro areas where unauthorized immigrants were most prevalent as seen in an analysis by Governing Magazine, property crime rates were 10 percent lower and violent crime rates were 8 percent lower than those of all other regions reviewed. Similarly year after year, El Paso and San Diego, cities bordering the Mexican border, record some of the lowest violent crime rates of other large American cities.
Over the last two decades, California has seen an influx of 3.5 million immigrants, mostly Latino, with an estimated 2.4 million undocumented immigrants. According to data from the FBI, the California Department of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control, the rate of violent crime in California has fallen by 50% in the same period, including drops in robberies (65%), homicide (68%), and rapes and assaults (more than 40%). Interestingly enough, in Los Angeles and San Francisco, the murder rates are half that of Topeka, Kansas, while the murder rate in Oakland, a sanctuary city, is lower than in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Despite data limitations, there does not to appear to be a case for immigrants posing more of a crime threat than citizens born in the United States. Although a dearth of current data and data collection methodology exists, the president’s new agency will have to administer a way to better inform the public policy debate over immigration and crime if it is to justify a large budget outlay for a new initiative.
Left unsaid is that there are other greater potential threats to the life and security of U.S. citizens that President Trump didn’t mention in his speech. One of those is opioid abuse. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s statistics, 33,000 U.S. citizens died from opioid overdose in 2015.