March 20, 2017 11:49AM

Immigration Myths — Crime and the Number of Illegal Immigrants

Last week Cato published a new immigration research and policy brief called “Criminal Immigrants: Their Numbers, Demographics, and Countries of Origin” that estimates the illegal immigrant incarceration rate—a subject long avoided in academic and policy research circles due to data limitations. 

Our headline finding is that both illegal immigrants and legal immigrants have incarceration rates far below those of native-born Americans—at 0.85 percent, 0.47 percent, and 1.53 percent, respectively. Excluding illegal immigrants who are incarcerated or in detention for immigration offenses lowers their incarceration rate to 0.5 percent of their population—within a smidge of legal immigrants. As a result, native-born Americans are overrepresented in the incarcerated population while illegal and legal immigrants are underrepresented, relative to their respective shares of the population. 

The relatively low number of incarcerated illegal immigrants places some immigration restrictionists in an uncomfortable position: choosing which myth to believe. The first myth is that illegal immigrants are especially crime-prone. The second myth is that there are actually two to three times as many illegal immigrants as is commonly reported. The usual number used by the government and most demographers is that there are 11 to 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States but a steady drumbeat of skeptics claim the real number is about 22 to 36 million. 

No matter how you dice the numbers, a larger illegal immigrant population in the United States means that their incarceration rate is even lower that what we report. Without adjusting for age, a total illegal immigrant population of 22 million would lower their incarceration rate to 0.56 percent using Cato’s estimate of the size of the incarcerated illegal immigrant population. Using the higher (and sillier) 36 million illegal immigrant population estimate by Ann Coulter lowers their incarceration rate to 0.34 percent. 

For the sake of argument, let me assume you do not like Cato’s numerical estimate of incarcerated illegal immigrants and you would prefer to use another estimate. The America American Survey form S2601B (2014 1-year sample) reports that there were 157,201 non-citizens in adult correctional facilities in 2014. That is the absolute maximum possible number of illegal immigrants incarcerated in that year. Using the ACS estimate lowers the illegal immigrant incarceration rate to 0.71 percent if the population is an estimated 22 million and to 0.44 percent if their total population is 36 million. 

Immigration restrictionists cannot have it both ways. They cannot assume that illegal immigrants are super-criminals and that their population in the United States is several times higher than it really is. No matter how you dice the numbers, their incarceration rate falls as their estimated population increases. For consistency’s sake, it’s time for immigration restrictionists to choose which myth they want to believe. 

December 14, 2015 4:26PM

Terrorism Does Not Justify Immigration Moratorium

Some prominent conservatives like Larry Kudlow, David Bossie, and Ann Coulter have now called for a complete moratorium on immigration because of the threat of Islamic terrorism.  However, they all focus on the benefits and neglect the costs of such a policy.  An immigration moratorium will cost the U.S. economy about $200 billion annually on net, even if it is successful at significantly reducing terrorism.

Costs of Terrorism and the Benefits of an Immigration Moratorium

According to the New America Foundation, jihadists have killed 45 Americans on U.S. soil since 9/11.  John Mueller estimates that each murder by jihadists costs about $15 million – double that of other deaths.  That means the cost of jihadist terrorism on American soil, just taking in to account the loss of life, is about $50 million a year since 9/11.  Let’s double that to $100 million to try and take account of other costs, excluding counter-terrorism spending. 

Under the most pessimistic assumptions, 73 percent of convicted terrorists in the decade after 9/11 were foreign-born.  Assuming that those 73 percent of immigrant terrorists are responsible for 73 percent of the jihadist murders since 9/11, their annual cost is $73 million.  At best, assuming there are no immigrant terrorists currently in the United States, the benefits of reducing terrorism via an immigration moratorium are $73 million annually.       

Costs of a Moratorium

Of course, measuring just the benefits of a moratorium is only half of the relevant calculation.  We must also estimate the economic costs of a moratorium on all future immigration.  Professor Benjamin Powell of Texas Tech University estimated the economic costs of a total immigration moratorium at $229 billion annually – $193 billion in rent-seeking costs and an additional loss of the conservatively estimated $36 billion annual immigration surplus.  Powell’s estimate is remarkably similar to Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda’s related estimate that removing 11 million unauthorized immigrants would lower GDP over a ten period by $2.6 trillion (Powell’s ten-year cost is $2.3 trillion).

For the purposes of this projection, I’m going to round down the economic costs of a moratorium to a mere $200 billion annually.  Thus, an immigration moratorium that eliminates 73 percent of Islamic terrorism in the U.S. will produce a net cost to our economy of $199,927,000,000 a year.  Under the current threat faced by Islamic terrorism, the cost of a moratorium is about 2000 times as great as the benefits under assumptions that greatly exaggerate the threat and undercount the costs.  A moratorium produces huge economic costs for very minor benefits. 

When Is a Moratorium Worth It?

There are situations where a total moratorium on immigration would be a cost effective counter-terrorism measure, assuming there are no cheaper or more effective security options available.   

For an immigration moratorium that costs the U.S. economy $200 billion annually and reduces the number of terrorist murders by 73 percent, it would have to prevent 800 San Bernardino-sized terrorist attacks each year (73 percent of the 1,096) just to break even as a counter-terrorism policy – leaving 296 additional attacks a year undeterred (see Table 1, row 4).  If we lived in such a dire security situation then 15,344 Americans inside of the United States would be murdered each year by Islamic terrorists and we would be suffering almost 5.6 San Bernardino-level attacks per week.  As tragic and brutal as the San Bernardino terrorist attack was, we can all be grateful that it is rare and that the number Americans actually murdered by jihadists every year is about one-five-thousandth of that number.            

Table 1

Breakeven Costs of Terrorist Attacks and Immigration Moratorium

Risk Reduction (Percent)

San Bernardino

Boston Marathon

September 11th

































Source: Table design and formulas from CHASING GHOSTS by John Mueller and Mark Stewart, pp. 140-147.  Mueller and Stewart estimated the costs for the Boston Marathon and 9/11 attacks while I estimated the costs for San Bernardino.      


A moratorium on all immigration to reduce the threat of Islamic terrorism will cost about $200 billion a year more than it will produce in benefits under the very generous, and unrealistic, assumptions I’ve made here.  Security is an important service vital to the maintenance and prosperity of every civilization but we must still judge its worth using the same economic cost-benefit tools we apply to every other decision.      

Although the threat from immigrant-caused terrorism is low, some small immigration reforms like allowing immigration agents to search social media or to focus their efforts entirely on detecting security concerns rather than fake marriages will be far more cost effective than a $200 billion annual immigration moratorium.  Perhaps we should try those cheaper methods first? 

March 25, 2010 3:57PM

Free Speech in Canada

Free speech isn’t exactly free in Canada, and even Glenn Greenwald and Mark Steyn agree on this point. When conservative commentator Ann Coulter (who can be uncivil, but shouldn’t be muzzled by the state for it) tried to give a speech at the University of Ottawa, she was warned by the political correctness police not to hurt anyone’s feelings:

I would, however, like to inform you, or perhaps remind you, that our domestic laws, both provincial and federal, delineate freedom of expression (or "free speech") in a manner that is somewhat different than the approach taken in the United States. I therefore encourage you to educate yourself, if need be, as to what is acceptable in Canada and to do so before your planned visit here.

You will realize that Canadian law puts reasonable limits on the freedom of expression. For example, promoting hatred against any identifiable group would not only be considered inappropriate, but could in fact lead to criminal charges. Outside of the criminal realm, Canadian defamation laws also limit freedom of expression and may differ somewhat from those to which you are accustomed. I therefore ask you, while you are a guest on our campus, to weigh your words with respect and civility in mind. . . .

So much for inalienable rights.

Steyn highlights the view of the lead investigator of Canada’s “Human Rights” Commission: “Freedom of speech is an American concept, so I don’t give it any value.”

I would offer a rebuke, but Ezra Levant has done it better than I ever could. Crank your volume up, sit back, and enjoy: