FACT CHECK: Have Thousands Been Killed By Illegal Immigrants Since 2003?

Emily Larsen | Fact Check Reporter

EDITOR’S NOTE: After publication of this article, the Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh clarified that while he was skeptical that thousands of American citizens have been killed by illegal immigrants since 2003, he thought that it is very likely that thousands of civilians – including other illegal immigrants – have been killed. We also added information from a 2011 government report on homicide convictions of illegal aliens in custody during fiscal year 2008.

Former Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) supervisor Thomas Kilbride said that “thousands” of civilians have been killed by illegal immigrants since 2003 in a Fox News interview Jan. 5.

“What about the thousands of civilians?” Kilbride said. “Thousands of dead since 2003 … All over the United States by illegal aliens.”

Verdict: Unsubstantiated

While immigration experts agree that it is very likely that illegal immigrants have killed thousands since 2003, statistics on murders by illegal immigrants are limited. Government data suggests that thousands of illegal immigrants have been convicted of homicide over the span of decades, but not that thousands have been killed since 2003.

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“Anybody can Google it. Go ahead, Google ‘illegal aliens murderers,’ or ‘civilians killed by illegal aliens,'” Kilbride told Fox News host Neil Cavuto. “It’s public record.”

President Donald Trump made a similar claim in his address to the nation on border security Jan. 8.

“Over the years, thousands of Americans have been brutally killed by those who illegally entered our country and thousands more lives will be lost if we don’t act right now,” Trump said.

Results from Kilbride’s suggested Google searches included a few lists of citizens killed by illegal aliens and a debunked claim that 63,000 Americans have been killed by illegal immigrants since 9/11. That figure came from an improper reading of a 2011 government report on criminal aliens.

There is no national database of Americans killed by illegal immigrants. State and federal criminal justice systems don’t generally distinguish if those arrested are in the country illegally, or if they entered the country illegally. Many illegal immigrants enter the country legally but overstay visas. (FACT CHECK: Do 40 Percent Of All Illegal Immigrants Overstay Legal Visas?)

Alex Nowrasteh, senior immigration policy analyst at the pro-immigration Cato Institute, was skeptical that available data could say whether thousands of American citizens had been killed by illegal immigrants since 2003.

“Most murders are committed by people who know their victims – like spouses, neighbors, and friends,” Nowrasteh told The Daily Caller News Foundation in an email. “Thus, a large percentage or even a majority of the victims of illegal immigrant murderers could be other illegal immigrants. That doesn’t make the murder less bad, but it does alter the narrative that ‘illegal immigrants are coming over the border to kill you.'”

When considering murders of all civilians, including illegal immigrants, however, Nowrasteh said that Killbride’s quote is very likely correct.

Trump and Kilbride’s claims are very vague – neither cited a specific number, and Trump didn’t provide a timeline.

Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), thought that information from a few federal and state agencies validated Kilbride’s claim. CIS favors stricter immigration policies.

Vaughan pointed to data from the Texas Department of Public Safety (TDPS), which does track the immigration status of criminal offenders. Illegal immigrants between June 1, 2011 and Dec. 31, 2018 accounted for 2,945 homicide charges and 1,602 homicide convictions over the course of their entire criminal careers in Texas.

“That of course does not mean that aliens killed 2,944 people,” Vaughan told TheDCNF in an email. “It’s hard to tally the number of victims. Some people kill more than one person but only get convicted once, sometimes more than one person is involved in a murder.”

The Texas figures, however, include many charges and convictions from before 2011. Counting only the charges and convictions that occurred June 2011 to December 2018, illegal immigrants accounted for 624 homicide charges and 301 homicide convictions.

Additionally, homicide charges include manslaughter, which can be an accidental or reckless killing. TDPS told TheDCNF in an email that it did not start retaining information on arrestees’ immigration status prior to June 2011.

Vaughan also mentioned a 2018 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report with data about criminal aliens counted as part of the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP), a grant program intended to help states and localities cover the cost of incarcerating illegal immigrants. GAO estimated that SCAAP criminal aliens who were in state prisons and local jails from fiscal years 2010 through FY 2015 accounted for 27,300 homicide-related offenses.

The GAO data has limitations.

The 27,300 figure counts the number of offenses, not necessarily the number of people incarcerated. One person could have multiple offenses, and those arrested weren’t necessarily prosecuted or convicted for a given offense. Furthermore, the offenses include attempted homicide.

SCAAP criminal aliens include legal immigrants in addition to those who entered the U.S. illegally. In 2010, the immigration status for 58 percent of inmates in the program was “unknown,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In addition, the 27,300 offenses date back to 1964. The report notes that 83 percent of the arrests and transfers by state and local arresting agencies and 92 percent by federal arresting agencies occurred in 2000 or later, but this is for all offenses – drug, theft, assault, etc. – and it’s unclear if these percentages apply to homicide offenses alone.

The report also breaks down the primary offense – defined as the offense with the longest maximum sentence – SCAAP criminal aliens were convicted of in states that utilize the program the most.

For SCAAP criminal aliens incarcerated in California in FY 2015, GAO identified around 5,208 convictions where the primary offense was homicide. That number was roughly 378 in Arizona, 1,449 in Florida, 1,122 in New York and 960 in Texas. However, those figures include convictions prior to 2015 and convictions for attempted homicide. It’s unclear how many of those incarcerated were in the country without documentation.

A similar GAO report from 2011 also breaks down primary offenses in those states for SCAAP inmates incarcerated during FY 2008, excluding those whose immigration status is unknown. Between California and other states, there were thousands of illegal aliens in prison for homicide. About 1,350 SCAAP illegal aliens in New York had homicide as a primary offense. In Texas, that number was about 900. GAO told TheDCNF in an email, however, that those convictions could have occurred any time before 2008.

The White House pointed TheDCNF to data on ICE administrative arrests for immigration violations. In FY 2017 and FY 2018, ICE administrative arrests included immigrants with 742 homicide charges and 3,172 homicide convictions.

These arrests did not necessarily occur in FY 2017 and FY 2018, though. ICE did not arrest the immigrants for homicide – it arrested them for immigration violations. Additionally, the ICE figures count charges rather than the number of immigrants arrested. Those arrested by ICE could have been charged with more than one crime.

Administrative arrests, like the data on criminal aliens in the GAO report, also include documented immigrants who did not enter the country illegally but violated their terms of entry.

Vaughn thought that the distinction between the arrest of legal immigrants versus those who crossed the border illegally is not that important. “If a person with a green card commits murder, that means their green card is subject to revocation and they are subject to deportation,” she told TheDCNF.

Some studies find that areas with high immigrant populations are not associated with higher rates of violent crime, and a Cato study found that that the criminal conviction rate in Texas was higher for U.S. natives than for illegal immigrants. Critics note that most studies do not analyze illegal immigrants in particular and do not cover all types of crime. They also point to data that show a disproportionate number of those convicted or incarcerated for federal crimes were non-citizens. (RELATED: Are Illegal Immigrants Less Likely To Commit Crimes Than US-Born Citizens?)  

Nowrasteh said that Trump and Kilbride’s claims are too vague to be helpful. “A range of 2,000 to infinite is about as informative as saying that I weigh somewhere between 10 and 10,000 pounds,” he told TheDCNF in an email.

“It would be impossible to come up with a better estimate without access to all the federal and state criminal justice records,” Vaughan said. “While no one can easily prove the exact number of people killed by illegal aliens, certainly it is in the thousands, even in just the last 10 years.”

Kilbride could not be reached for comment.

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Emily Larsen

Fact Check Reporter