Yesterday, authorities in Iowa charged 24-year old Cristhian Bahena Rivera with the murder of Mollie Tibbetts. Facts in these types of cases come out slowly and some details, substantive or minor, may change in the months ahead that could alter the correct view of this case. But nothing can change the fact that the murder of Tibbetts was a brutal and unforgivable act and that the murderer should be punished to the full extent of the law. Rivera is charged with that murder and there is a lot of evidence to support a conviction.
This terrible murder is already feeding into a political firestorm. People with a political axe to grind, those who want to distract from the recent conviction of Paul Manafort and plea deal for Michael Cohen, and partisans who want to compare Tibbetts’ murder to the shooting of Kate Steinle in an effort to impact the upcoming November elections are already using the tragic murder of Tibbetts as an argument for increasing the enforcement of immigration laws against people who aren’t charged with murder or any real crime except violating international labor market regulations (immigration laws). They want to convict all illegal immigrants of this murder in the court of public opinion, not just the actual murderer.
Scarce law enforcement resources should be devoted to solving and deterring the most serious crimes regardless of who commits them. That is the best policy for saving American lives. That means that increased enforcement of our immigration laws is not a good way to prevent murders. Illegal immigrants are less likely to be incarcerated for crimes in the United States than native-born Americans. Texas is the only state that keeps data on the number of convictions of illegal immigrants for specific crimes (I sent versions of Public Interest Requests to every state). In Texas in 2015, the rate of convictions per 100,000 illegal immigrants was 16 percent lower below that of native-born Americans. That is little consolation to the victims and their families, but the population of illegal immigrants is less likely to be convicted of murder than native-born Americans in Texas. If nationwide incarceration rates by immigration status are any clue, that trend likely holds nationwide.
I recently received new data from Texas on the number of convictions by crime and immigration status as well as the number of individuals convicted (they are slightly different). This Texas data is the best data that we have on the commission of murder by immigrants by specific legal status. In 2016, 746 native-born Texans, 32 illegal immigrants, and 28 legal immigrants were convicted of homicide. In that year, the homicide conviction rate for native-born Americans is Texas was 3.2 per 100,000 natives while it was 1.8 per 100,000 illegal immigrants and 0.9 per 100,000 legal immigrants (Figure 1). The illegal immigrant conviction rate for homicide was 44 percent below that of native-born Americans in 2016 in Texas.