FACT CHECK: Are Illegal Immigrants Less Likely To Commit Crimes Than US-Born Citizens?

Emily Larsen | Fact Check Reporter

Many people claimed recently that illegal immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born U.S. citizens.

Verdict: Unsubstantiated

Many studies suggest that immigrant populations do not drive an increase in crime. Critics point to government data, however, that show a disproportionate number of those convicted or incarcerated for federal crimes were non-citizens.

Few studies look at crime rates for illegal immigrants specifically, and those that do exist are limited in their scope. Some only examine more severe types of crime, and they do not account for crimes that were not reported.

Fact Check:

People said that illegal immigrants were less likely to commit crimes after President Donald Trump’s campaign released an ad Oct. 31 that featured a migrant caravan headed toward the U.S.-Mexico border alongside footage of an illegal immigrant who killed two police officers. Several companies, including Fox News and NBC, pulled the ad. CNN called it “racist.”

“People who were born in America actually commit most of the crimes. Immigrants don’t usually commit as much crime,” CNN anchor Don Lemon said in a segment Nov. 4.

“Illegal entrants especially because they want to stay low on the radar,” CNN’s Chris Cuomo responded.

Dorothy A. Brown, a law professor at Emory University, wrote in a CNN op-ed Nov. 1 that the ad is not grounded in reality. “The research is clear. Undocumented and legal immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born American citizens,” she wrote.

Singer and actress Barbra Streisand made the claim on Twitter. “To reiterate… Crime rates are lower amongst unauthorized immigrants than American born citizens,” she tweeted Nov. 4.

Studies examine the relationship between immigration and crime in two main ways: by exploring whether there’s a correlation between immigration and crime rates, and by examining the makeup of those convicted of crimes to see if immigrants commit crimes at a higher rate than U.S-born citizens.

Many studies suggest that immigrant populations do not drive an increase in crime rates and that immigrants are not more likely to be convicted of crimes.

A study of violent and property crime rates in 200 metropolitan areas found that crime stayed stable or fell in 136 areas from 1980 to 2010 even though the immigrant population increased. Another analysis of studies on the immigrant-crime relationship published from 1994 to 2014 in the Annual Review of Criminology found that “overall, the immigration-crime association is negative – but very weak.” And a 1997 study found that among 18- to 40-year-old men, immigrants are less likely to be incarcerated than native-born citizens.

However, the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), which favors reduced immigration, identified figures from the U.S. Sentencing Commission that show that immigrants make up a disproportionate share of those convicted of federal crimes. Non-citizens make up about 8.4 percent of the adult population in the U.S., CIS said, but 44.2 percent of those convicted of federal crimes between 2011 and 2016 were not U.S. citizens. Excluding immigration crimes, the figure was 21.4 percent.

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report published in July also shows a disproportionate share of federal inmates. About 21.5 percent of those incarcerated in federal prisons in fiscal year 2016 were non-citizens.

These studies have limitations. They do not distinguish between legal immigrants and those in the country illegally. Some studies account for only violent crime and property crime. The U.S. Sentencing Commission and GAO figures only account for federal crimes, while most crimes are prosecuted at the state level.

Other studies examine crime in relation to illegal immigrants specifically. Brown cited one of them in her op-ed: A 2018 study of crimes rates from 1990 to 2014 found that “the relationship between undocumented immigration and violent crime is generally negative.”

That does not mean, though, that illegal immigrants commit violent crimes at a lower rate than U.S.-born citizens – only that areas with more illegal immigrants are not necessarily more dangerous.

To determine whether illegal immigrants commit crimes at a higher or lower rate than U.S. citizens, researchers must estimate the size of the illegal immigrant population – most analyses say that there are between 11 million and 13 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. – and how many crimes were committed by illegal immigrants.

Limited data makes the latter difficult. Government sources generally don’t say whether incarcerated non-citizens are in the country legally or not.

“Crime data in the United States are awful,” Alex Nowrasteh, senior immigration policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute, told The Daily Caller News Foundation in an email. “Government should directly identify illegal immigrants who are incarcerated.”

Research from Cato, a pro-immigration think tank, attempts to quantify the number of incarcerated illegal immigrants to compare their incarceration rates to U.S.-born citizens.

Nowrasteh said that Texas is the only state that keeps data on the number of convictions for illegal immigrants for specific crimes. He found that the criminal conviction rate was higher for U.S. natives than for illegal immigrants in Texas in 2015 – 1,797 per 100,000 compared to 899 per 100,000.

A second Cato study from Nowrasteh examined nationwide incarceration rates based on data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS). Because the ACS only distinguishes the incarcerated population by nativity and naturalization status, not whether an immigrant was in the country illegally or not, Cato used statistical methods to identify illegal immigrants. The analysis found that illegal immigrants were 47 percent less likely to be incarcerated than native-born U.S. citizens.

One study on Arizona conviction rates from John Lott, president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, contradicts the Cato findings. “Undocumented immigrants are at least 142% more likely to be convicted of a crime than other Arizonans,” the study said.

Lott’s study is disputed. Nowrasteh said that Lott mistakenly included legal immigrants in his analysis, and the Arizona Department of Corrections said that its data does not distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants. Lott maintains that he did not misinterpret the Arizona data. He told TheDCNF in an email that the Cato study, not his, “mixes together legal and illegal immigrants.”

Many articles, including Brown’s, cite the Cato studies as evidence that the crime rate for illegal immigrants is lower than for U.S.-born citizens. However, incarceration and conviction rates do not account for crimes that were not reported. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 52 percent of violent victimizations from 2006 to 2010 went unreported to police. About 51 percent of Hispanic and Latinos victims did not report a violent incident, a slightly lower proportion than white victims – 54 percent.

Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at CIS, noted that the studies omit many types of crimes committed by illegal immigrants. “At least half of illegal aliens committed a crime in entering the United States illegally,” she told TheDCNF in an email. “Moreover, we estimate that about half of all the illegal aliens who are employed are working on the books, but they obtained their jobs by fraudulently claiming to be here legally. These crimes are not all prosecuted, but they still committed them.”

A 2009 CIS report on immigration and crime notes that the deportation of criminal aliens may play a role in reducing their incarceration rates because many will not re-enter the country and commit more crimes, whereas native-born criminals may commit repeat offenses. “Prosecutors are known to sometimes drop pending charges against non-citizens once ICE indicates it will deport the alien, thereby sweeping the case off the prosecutor’s docket,” it said.

“Incarceration rates is only one of several different possible measures,” Nowrasteh said. “I wish that I could measure the crime committed by illegal immigrants that is either not reported nor prosecuted. Doing so would give a full and complete understanding of crime in the United States. Unfortunately, that’s impossible.”

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Emily Larsen

Fact Check Reporter