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Restrictionists Are Misleading You about Immigrant Crime Rates

Alex Nowrasteh

President Donald Trump never misses an opportunity to depict
unauthorized immigrants—especially of the Hispanic
variety—as “rapists and criminals.” He did it again in his
State of the Union address when he drew attention to two Long
Island teenage girls killed by the El Salvadorian gang MS13. Those
deaths are tragic, but they don’t say much one way or the other
about the propensity of these immigrants to commit crimes.

You wouldn’t, however, know that from restrictionist pundits who
are working overtime to sell the “illegal immigrants are criminals”
narrative. A case in point is former US Civil Rights Commission member Peter
Kirsanow’s
recent piece in National Review purporting
to show that these immigrants are more likely to commit crimes than
the native born. But Kirsanow uses incomplete and cherry-picked
data—and makes rookie mistakes in interpreting it to
boot—that eviscerate the credibility of his case.

Kirsanow is correct that most of the disagreements over the
criminality of undocumented immigrants could be resolved by better
data. But that doesn’t absolve us from accurately reading the data
we do have. Kirsanow, however, does not. His entire case is based
on a gross misreading of the 2011 Government Accountability Office
(GAO) report on the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program
(SCAAP), a federal program that partially reimburses states and
localities for the cost of incarcerating certain criminal
aliens.

Taking amateur analyses
or government spin at face value will hurt peaceful and hardworking
immigrants without making Americans safer.

The SCAAP report shows that in 2009, there were 295,959 criminal
aliens incarcerated in state and local prisons at any given time
that year. From this number, he subtracts those in the country
legally and assumes that the balance gives one the total number of
illegal immigrants incarcerated that year. He compares that number
with the population of illegals in various states to estimate their
crime rates. Then he compares that rate with the crime rate of
citizens to come up with a massively inflated “incarceration rate”
of these aliens.

But here’s the problem with his analysis:

Kirsanow assumed, as some others before him with only a passing
familiarity with these databases, that the 295,959 figure refers to
the number of individuals incarcerated. In fact, it is the total
number of incarcerations. In other words, if a criminal alien was
incarcerated for 10 short sentences, released after each one, and
then re-incarcerated, then that single alien would account for 10
incarcerations under the SCAAP figure for that year. But Kirsnaow
counts that as 10 individuals.

However, when it comes to estimating the incarceration rate of
natives, Kirsanow compares the number of individuals incarcerated
with their total population. This nonsensical apples-to-oranges
comparison yields an exceedingly unfavorable “incarceration rate”
for undocumented immigrants. Indeed, for the five states he
examines, the undocumented incarceration rate is 10-100 points
higher than the natives, when more credible studies show that the
reality may be closer to the opposite.

Kirsanow failed to appreciate that the purpose of the GAO report
was to estimate the reimbursement that Uncle Sam owes state and
local governments for incarcerating criminal illegal immigrants.
Thus, the agency was only interested in the total number of
incarcerations over the course of a year. It didn’t care to
separate out the number of offenses from the number of offenders.
That is why the GAO report is nearly worthless for any scholarly
attempt to estimate illegal immigrant crime rates.

A quick look at American Community Survey (ACS) data further
confirms just how out-of-line Kirsanow’s estimate is. (The ACS is
an annual mini-census that, among other things, gathers information
about prisoners in adult correctional facilities. It doesn’t report
on the broad legal status of immigrants but does indicate whether
they are American citizens and their country of birth, making it
possible to separate immigrants from Americans.)

For 2008, the ACS reported that there were 156,329 non-citizens
incarcerated in all three—federal, state, and
local—adult correctional facilities. This is only half of the
296,959 incarcerations that SCAAP reports in just state and local
prisons making it logically impossible for the 296,959 figure to be
referring to the total number of criminal aliens incarcerated.

Kirsanow is merely an individual whose analysis can be
discounted. But there is no discounting the Alien Incarceration Report jointly released by
the Departments of Justice (DOJ) and Homeland Security (DHS) last
December. It too misrepresented data when it estimated that
“one-in-five of all persons in the [federal] Bureau of Prisons
custody were foreign born, and that 94 percent of confirmed aliens
in custody were unlawfully present.” That seems shockingly high as
illegal immigrants are, at most, about 4 percent of the population.
But if this report were right, they would be 19 percent of all
prisoners.

But the report had no solid basis for its conclusion because it
did not have all the prison data. If you scroll down beyond the
report’s press release and Summary of Findings, it admits as much. It
notes:

This report does not include data on the foreign-born or alien
populations in state prisons and local jails because state and
local facilities do not routinely provide DHS or DOJ with
comprehensive information about their inmates and detainees. This
limitation is noteworthy because state and local facilities account
for approximately 90 percent of the total U.S. incarcerated
population. DHS and DOJ are working to develop a reliable
methodology for estimating the status of state and local
incarcerated populations in future reports.

Of course that didn’t stop Fox News and other similar outfits from using
it to peddle their “illegal immigrants are hardened criminal”
line.

It is really important to bear in mind that the federal prison
population is not representative of the incarcerated populations in
state and local prisons. That’s because federal prisons house
illegal immigrants who commit immigration offenses. The ones who
commit more serious crimes tend to be housed in state adult
correctional facilities.

Only 85 total people who were convicted of murder were sentenced
to federal prison in 2016. But the total number of murder
convictions nationwide that year was 17,785. Clearly,
only a small fraction of a percent of all murderers are
incarcerated in federal prisons so most undocumented immigrants in
these facilities are not hardened criminals.

As Kirsanow acknowledged, the government doesn’t keep good data
on illegal immigrant incarcerations in state correctional
facilities. But the data we do have suggests that they are actually
much less crime-prone than native-born Americans.

The Texas Tribune reported, after examining data obtained from
the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, that illegal immigrants
are underrepresented in local jails. They are only 4.6 percent of
Texas inmates while they make up 6.3 percent of that state’s total
population.

Some academic researchers have examined quasi-natural policy
shifts to see how crime rates change due to more intense
immigration enforcement. If illegal immigrants are more
crime-prone, then more aggressive immigration enforcement in an
area should lower crime rates. But they found no overall reduction.
This suggests, at a minimum, that illegal immigrants’ crime rate is
no higher than that of the broader population.

More
recent
research conduced by Michelangelo Landgrave and me finds
similar results. We applied a statistical technique that is used to
figure out the employment, age, and occupations of immigrants in
the census to the incarcerated population data in the American
Community Survey. This allowed us to estimate the percentage of
illegals among the incarcerated. We found that even if one includes
in the mix those in detention facilities—most whom are there
for immigration-related offenses—illegal immigrants are 44
percent less likely to be incarcerated than native-born Americans.
Excluding those in immigration detention yields an incarceration
rate that is almost identical to that of legal immigrants: A
dramatic 69 percent lower than that of natives.

Restrictionists want the public to believe that undocumented
immigrants are criminals in order to justify harsh enforcement
policies and crackdowns. But before America goes down this
draconian path, it is vital that it gets the facts straight. Taking
amateur analyses or government spin at face value will hurt
peaceful and hardworking immigrants without making Americans
safer.

Alex
Nowrasteh
is the immigration policy analyst at the Cato
Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.