Response to Barry Latzer’s Criticism of “Criminal Immigrants in Texas”

Barry Latzer, Professor Emeritus of Criminal Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, wrote a criticism of Cato’s brief on the homicide conviction rate for illegal immigrants in Texas.  My research brief found that the illegal immigrant homicide conviction rate in Texas in 2015 was 2.6 per 100,000 illegal immigrants, which is below the 3.1 per 100,000 rate for native-born Americans, but higher than the 1 per 100,000 rate for legal immigrants.  Professor Latzer mischaracterized my findings and made some other errors that I will discuss below.  His points are in quotes and my responses follow:

“Critics of illegal immigration argue that the crime rates of illegal aliens are higher than those of the American population generally, or at least of legal immigrants.  The New York Times has denied that illegals commit more crime than other groups, but the paper bases its claim on a Cato Institute study that relies on questionable data [emphasis added].”

Latzer linked to a New York Times piece that says that illegal immigrants have lower conviction and arrest rates “than those for native-born Americans for most crimes.”  The New York Times piece did not use Cato’s research to claim that other groups like legal immigrants have a lower criminal conviction or arrest rates.  The January 15, 2019 front page of the New York Times presented Cato’s findings in a graph that clearly showed that the legal immigrant criminal conviction rate was below that for illegal immigrants and that both rates were below those of native-born Americans. 

Latzer also claimed that I “relied on questionable data” to calculate the Texas illegal immigrant conviction rates.  That’s a very odd thing to write as Latzer relied on the exact same source as I did: the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS).  I wrote in footnote six of my brief that I would make the data available to anybody who asked and then provided my email address.     

The data that DPS sent me break down the annual number of homicide convictions by the immigration status of the offender for each year.  The Texas DPS website does not provide the number of annualized homicide convictions for illegal immigrants.  Latzer appears, although I’m not entirely sure, to have worked backward from numbers provided on the Texas DPS website to create an annual average of the number of homicide convictions over many years, which is much less precise as the number of homicides does fluctuate annually as does the number of illegal immigrants in a state.  The latter number is also critical to estimating the homicide conviction rate.  It is especially important to use the accurate annual number of homicides as the nationwide homicide rate per 100,000 American residents rose from a low of 4.5 in 2014 to a high of 5.4 in 2016.

At this point, it is important to explain how I calculated the criminal conviction rates for illegal immigrants, native-born Americans, and legal immigrants.  I took the number of criminal convictions for each group (the numerator) and divided them by the population of each group (the denominator).  I then multiplied the result by 100,000 to display the number of criminal convictions per 100,000 for each sub-population – which is standard when discussing crime rates.  Both the numerator and the denominator are vital to calculating an accurate criminal conviction or crime rate.

According to the Texas DPS data, there were 785 total homicide convictions in Texas in 2015. Of those, native-born Americans were convicted of 709 homicides, illegal immigrants were convicted of 46 homicides, and legal immigrants were convicted of 30 homicides.  After we published our brief, the Texas DPS reported that Texas prisons found 63 additional illegal immigrants over the June 1, 2011 to December 31, 2018 period who were convicted of homicide but not counted as illegal immigrants. 

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) recently sent me the number of incarcerated individuals by legal status, but they appear to count only immigrants with an ICE hold, which also includes immigrants who were legally present in the United States at the time of their arrest but who then lost their legal status when they convicted, as illegal immigrants.  This is an important difference as the Texas DPS counts the immigration status of the offender at the time of arrest, not after conviction when the offender could potentially lose his lawful immigration status as a result of his conviction.  Thus, the TDCJ counts more illegal immigrants in prison because they are including criminals who were legal immigrants at the time of their arrest and who lost their lawful status after they were convicted due to their conviction.  As a result, the additional homicides committed by illegal immigrants from TDCJ that Texas DPS counts that Latzer mentions were legally present in the United States when they committed their crimes.  Foreign-born people who are lawfully present in the United States, but who are not naturalized, mostly lose their lawful immigration status and become eligible for deportation upon conviction.  It makes no sense to include those folks who are convicted of crimes in any measurement of illegal immigrant criminality because they were legal immigrants when they committed their crimes

Let me make an analogy to show why the TDCJ numbers shouldn’t count toward illegal immigrant criminality based on their count.  If a police officer is arrested for a criminal offense and then convicted for that offense and incarcerated, he loses his job when he is convicted (if not before).  But since he was still a police officer when he was arrested, we must still count his crime as one committed by a police officer. 

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the TDCJ numbers identified an additional 63 illegal immigrants who unlawfully present in the United States when they committed murder.  If we distribute those 63 additional homicide convictions evenly over the June 1, 2011 to December 31, 2018 period, the illegal immigrant homicide conviction rate rises to 3.09 per 100,000, right below the 3.1 per 100,000 for native-born Americans.

“While these figures sound disturbing, we can’t say with certainty if they are high relative to the size of the illegal immigrant population because, as noted above, we really don’t know how many there are. A 2014 estimate by the Pew Research Center pegged the Texas figure at 1,650,000, or 6.3 percent of the state’s entire population. Homeland Security offered a higher estimate for 2015: 1,940,000, which accounted for 7.3 percent of the state’s population.”

Latzer is correct that the number of illegal immigrants in Texas is crucial to estimating their relative crime rates.  Our Cato research looked at the criminal conviction rates in Texas in 2015 because that is the latest year for which estimates of the number of illegal immigrants on the state level had been produced when we wrote our brief.  Those estimates were from the Center for Migration Studies (CMS), which estimated that there were 1,758,199 illegal immigrants in Texas in 2015.  Pew did not have an estimate for 2015 and the Department of Homeland Security’s higher estimate for that year wasn’t released until December 2018. 

My next step in calculating relative crime rates for the entire state was looking at the American Community Survey (ACS) 1-year estimates for the state of Texas in 2015, as I explained in my brief (selecting the other ACS estimates do not change the results).  I use the number of native-born Americans that the ACS reported.  The ACS also reports the total number of foreign-born residents in Texas, the number of naturalized foreign-born residents, and the number of non-naturalized foreign-born residents.  Illegal immigrants are in that last category, so I subtracted the number of illegal immigrants reported in the CMS from the number of foreign-born non-citizens.  The difference is the number of foreign-born non-naturalized residents who are legally in Texas.  I then added that to the number of foreign-born naturalized residents to get the number of legal immigrants in Texas.  Thus, there were 22,797,819 native-born Americans, 1,758,199 illegal immigrants, and 2,913,096 legal immigrants living in Texas in 2015.  Those were the denominators I used to calculate the criminal conviction rate for each group.

Latzer is also correct that we don’t precisely know how many illegal immigrants reside nationwide or in Texas.  Those numbers are based on estimates and there is a range of them.  The CMS estimate that we used for the denominator is the mid-range between the Pew estimate for 2014 and the DHS estimate for 2015, but the homicide conviction rate is lower for illegal immigrants relative to native-born Americans in each year for each estimate (Table 1).  Just to be clear, Table 1 includes the extra illegal immigrant murderers counted by TDCJ even though they are redundant as I intend to give Latzer’s argument the best chance.

Table 1

Texas Homicide Conviction Rates by Immigration Status by Population Estimate and Year of Estimate

  Center for Migration Studies (2015) Department of Homeland Security (2015) Pew (2014)
Native-Born Americans 3.11 3.11 3.12
Illegal Immigrants 3.09 2.80 2.39
All Immigrants 1.63 1.63 1.35
Legal Immigrants 0.74 0.79 0.75

Sources: American Community Survey, Center for Migration Studies, Department of Homeland Security, Pew, and Texas Department of Public Safety.

Notes:  Each number is the homicide conviction rate per 100,000 people in each subpopulation.  The numbers in parentheses are the year for the estimates of the number of illegal immigrants.

“Among all arrests for selected offenses over the period 2012 to 2017, illegal aliens were taken into custody for homicide (which includes murder and manslaughter) in numbers greater than their population size would predict. They accounted for nearly 10 percent of all apprehended killers, whereas, using the high-end DHS estimate, they make up 7.3 percent of the Texas population. For all other crimes, however, including burglary, drugs, theft, robbery, and weapons offenses, their apprehension percentages ranged from 2.5 to 6.7 percent—in other words, below their putative population size.”

Arrest rates are not nearly as important for measuring criminality as conviction rates are.  After all, lots of people are arrested for crimes and not convicted.  To claim that illegal immigrants were arrested for a greater percentage of offenses than their percentage of the total population of Texas, he’d have to have the number of total arrests for each offense by the immigration status of the arrestee – native-born, illegal immigrants, and legal immigrants.  He doesn’t have that data as the link he provides to the Texas DPS website doesn’t include the total number of arrests or convictions in Texas by immigration status.  As I showed in Table 1 of my brief, the homicide arrest rate for illegal immigrants in Texas in 2015 was 3.7 per 100,000 and it was 5.4 per 100,000 natives.  Just to be clear, the arrest numbers came from the Texas DPS directly and are annualized.

“The crime of homicide provides the most accurate measure, though, because a much higher proportion of murders are solved by police—around 70 percent—than for any other crime; by contrast, fewer than 15 percent of property offenses lead to an arrest. As a result, we have much more accurate demographics for murderers than for, say, burglars. The indication that illegal aliens commit disproportionate numbers of murders is corroborated by crime rates, shaky though they may be, for 2014 and 2015—the two years for which we have population estimates from Pew and DHS. In 2014, Texas illegal-alien murder-arrest rates were 4.99 per 100,000—56 percent higher than the rates for all other apprehended murderers (3.2 per 100,000). In 2015, the rates were 35 percent higher for illegal aliens (4.2 per 100,000, versus 3.1 per 100,000).”

Homicide conviction rates provide the most accurate measure, but Latzer relies on arrest figures to make his point.  But his arrest numbers do not add up either (Table 2).  No matter which estimate we use for the number of illegal immigrants, they are less likely to be arrested for homicides than native-born Americans.  Even combining legal immigrants and native-born Americans into a single category does not provide figures remotely close to those presented by Latzer.  

Table 2

Homicide Arrest Rates Per Illegal Immigrant Population Estimate by Year, Per 100,000

  Center for Migration Studies (2015) Department of Homeland Security (2015) Pew (2014)
Native-Born Americans 5.40 5.40 5.49
Illegal Immigrants 3.70 3.35 3.94
All Immigrants 2.10 2.10 2.17
Legal Immigrants 1.13 1.21 1.15

Sources: American Community Survey, Center for Migration Studies, Department of Homeland Security, Pew, and Texas Department of Public Safety.

Notes:  Each number is the homicide conviction rate per 100,000 people in each subpopulation.  The numbers in parentheses are the year for the estimates of the number of illegal immigrants.

“Granted, neither the rates nor the percentages of illegal aliens arrested are overwhelmingly high. And the rates and percentages for other crimes that they commit are below those of the arrested citizen and legal-alien populations. Still, illegal aliens account for nearly 10 percent of the apprehended murderers in Texas, and over 39,000 of the annual arrests for crime overall. These figures are significant, reflecting crime in a single state with an outsize number of illegal aliens—a small part of the nationwide picture.”

 In 2015, arrests of illegal immigrants for homicide accounted for about 4.9 percent of all arrests for homicide in the state of Texas for that year even though they accounted for 6.1 percent to 7.1 percent of Texas’ total population in all of the years and estimates (CMS, DHS, Pew) that Latzer mentions.  No matter how you dice it, illegal immigrants are less likely to be arrested for homicide than native-born Americans in Texas in 2015.