There Is No Evidence of an Illegal Immigrant Crime Wave: Why the “Elusive Crime Wave Data Shows Frightening Toll of Illegal Immigrant Criminals” Is Flawed

The House of Representatives recently passed the No Sanctuary for Criminals Act (H.R. 3003) and Kate’s Law (H.R. 3004) to tighten immigration enforcement in response to the fear that illegal immigrants are especially likely to commit violent or property crimes.  Both laws stem from the tragic 2015 murder of Kate Steinle by an illegal immigrant named Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez after he had been deported multiple times. 

Debates on the House floor over both bills veered into the social science of immigrant criminality.  The majority of research finds that immigrants are less likely to be incarcerated than natives and that increases in their population in local areas are correlated with lower crime rates – even for illegal immigrants.

Despite that wealth of empirical evidence, a two-year-old Fox News piece entitled “Elusive Crime Wave Data Shows Frightening Toll of Illegal Immigrant Criminals” by investigative reporter Malia Zimmerman was offered as evidence of illegal immigrant criminality.  Ms. Zimmerman’s piece makes many factual errors that have misinformed the public debate over Kate’s Law and the No Sanctuary for Criminals Act.  Below, I quote from Ms. Zimmerman’s piece and then respond by describing her errors and what the actual facts are.

“Statistics show the estimated 11.7 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. account for 13.6 percent of all offenders sentenced for crimes committed in the U.S. Twelve percent of murder sentences, 20 percent of kidnapping sentences and 16 percent of drug trafficking sentences are meted out to illegal immigrants.”

Ms. Zimmerman writes that those statistics are for “crimes committed in the U.S.” but they are actually only for some federal sentences in 2014 and not nationwide figures according to a report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission that is the primary source of these figures.  Prisoners incarcerated in federal prisons account for roughly 10 percent of all prisoners in the United States while the other 90 percent are held in state and local prisons and jails for being convicted of breaking state and local laws.  Illegal immigrants convicted of an immigration offense are held in federal prison.  Thus, illegal immigrants are overrepresented in federal prison because the federal government enforces immigration laws but only a small fraction of all those incarcerated for “crimes committed in the U.S.” are in federal prisons.  

Ms. Zimmerman’s claim that 12 percent of murder sentences were meted out to illegal immigrants in 2014 shows just how misleading it is to rely on partial federal data to make a point about nationwide crime.  This U.S. Sentencing Commission lists only 75 murderers sentenced to federal prison in 2014, a mere 0.5 percent of the 14,249 nationwide murders committed that year in the United States.  Of those 75 murderers, Zimmerman claimed that nine were illegal immigrants.  The small number of murderers sentenced to federal prison are not representative of the other 99.5 percent of murders elsewhere in the same year and certainly don’t prove that illegal immigrants are more likely to be criminals.  The federal government does not convict many people for murder, kidnapping, or drug trafficking because those are primarily the purviews of state and local governments.  The figures for kidnapping and drug trafficking are similarly unrepresentative because they are only for federal sentences and not those sentences to state or local incarceration.

Furthermore, it appears that Ms. Zimmerman just copied these numbers from a Breitbart blog post written by Caroline May on July 7th, 2015 despite her claim that “FoxNews.com did review reports from immigration reform groups and various government agencies, including the U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Sentencing Commission, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Government Accountability Office, the Bureau of Justice Statistics and several state and county correctional departments.”  Ms. May claims to have information that parses the U.S. Sentencing Commission by the legal status of the immigrant offender but it is not publicly available.  Regardless, Ms. May did clearly state that the U.S. Sentencing Commission “data only deals with federal offenders sentenced under the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 (SRA) and does not include other categories like state cases, death penalty cases, or ‘cases initiated but for which no convictions were obtained, offenders convicted for whom no sentences were yet issued, and offenders sentenced but for whom no sentencing documents were submitted to the Commission [emphasis added].’”  Ms. Zimmerman should have also included that vital detail.  

“In the most recent figures available, a Government Accountability Office report titled, ‘Criminal Alien Statistics,’ found there were 55,000 illegal immigrants in federal prison and 296,000 in state and local lockups in 2011.”

Ms. Zimmerman misread the GAO report in several places.  First, she got the years wrong.  The 55,000 figure is the number of criminal aliens incarcerated in federal prison in 2010, not 2011.  The 296,000 criminal alien incarcerations in state prisons and local jails is for 2009, not 2011. 

Second, Ms. Zimmerman misreported the definition of a criminal alien which she claimed were all illegal immigrants.  The GAO report claims that there were 55,000 criminal aliens in federal prison in 2010 and it defines criminal aliens as “[n]oncitizens who are residing in the United States legally or illegally and are convicted of a crime.”  This is an important distinction because there were about 22.5 million foreigners living in the United States in 2010 without citizenship but only about half of them were illegal immigrants.  By lumping them together, Ms. Zimmerman makes illegal immigrants seem more crime prone and legal immigrants less crime prone. 

Third, the 296,000 figure was the estimated total number of incarcerations of illegal immigrants over the course of the entire year of 2009, not the number of illegal immigrants incarcerated.  An example will help illustrate this point: If a criminal alien was incarcerated for 10 short sentences, released after each one, and then incarcerated after each one then that single alien would account for 10 incarcerations under the SCAAP figure. 

The American Community Survey (ACS) reports the number of incarcerated immigrants at a specific time.  For instance, in 2009 the ACS reported that there were 162,579 criminal non-citizen aliens incarcerated in federal, state, and local adult correctional facilities – almost half of the 296,000 incarcerations under SCAAP.  Thus, the total number of people incarcerated over the course of a year is very different from the number of prisoners incarcerated at any one time.  Virtually everyone reporting the number of prisoners or those incarcerated in the United States at any given time uses the ACS method of focusing on a slice of time. 

The GAO reports that there were 160,348 American citizens incarcerated alongside the 54,718 criminal aliens in federal prison in 2010.  The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports different figures of 179,435 American citizens incarcerated alongside 30,336 criminal aliens.  Historical Bureau of Prison data is unavailable but there were about 40,000 criminal aliens incarcerated in May 2017 alongside 147,419 U.S. citizen prisoners.          

“Hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrant criminals are being deported. In 2014, ICE removed 315,943 criminal illegal immigrants nationwide, 85 percent of whom had previously been convicted of a criminal offense.”

Ms. Zimmerman again misunderstood and misquoted these statistics.  Only 56 percent of ICE’s 315,943 removals in 2014 were previously convicted of a crime, not the 85 percent that she wrote.  She misunderstood page seven of the 2014 ICE report on removals.  That report does state that 85 percent of all removals from the interior of the United States had previously been convicted of a crime.  However, ICE only removed 102,224 people from the interior of the United States that year while the rest were removals of unlawful immigrants apprehended at the border. 

Many of the previous criminal convictions were for immigration offenses and not violent and property crimes.  The 2014 ICE report stated that they “conducted 213,179 removals of recent border crossers.  Many of those apprehended along the border had prior criminal or civil immigration violations in the United States.” 

“[A]n internal report compiled by the Texas Department of Public Safety … showed that between 2008 and 2014, noncitizens in Texas – a group that includes illegal and legal immigrants – committed 611,234 crimes, including nearly 3,000 homicides.”

That quote is maddeningly unspecific and the original report is unavailable.  Facts about the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) report come from this blog written by J. Christian Adams at PJ Media but that sheds little light.  I found a similar blurb published on the Texas DPS website that describes similar-looking statistics over different years and what the numbers actually mean.  If that blurb and the missing Texas DPS report reported statistics in the same way then the “611,234 crimes, including nearly 3,000 homicides” are actually a count of the total number of lifetime charges filed against all of the noncitizens arrested in Texas from 2008 to 2014.  They are not a count of the total number of crimes committed by illegal immigrants from 2008 to 2014.  Thus, a hypothetical noncitizen charged with a dozen different homicides but who was never actually convicted and who was arrested between 2008 and 2014 would account for 12 out of the 3000 homicide charges.  Only a fraction of the charges mentioned in the blurb actually resulted in convictions which is likely the case with the unavailable Texas DPS report too.  If the Texas DPS report presented its statistics in the same way as the updated Texas DPS blurb then noncitizens did not commit “nearly 3,000 homicides” from 2008 to 2014. 

In 2014, non-citizens were about 10.9 percent of Texas’ population.  From 2008 to 2014, The FBI’s Uniform Crime Report (UCR) system records 8,551 murders in the state of Texas.  If Ms. Zimmerman’s characterization of the data is correct then non-citizens would have committed 35 percent of all homicides in the state during that time period despite being only about 11 percent of the population – which would be shocking if there was any evidence to back it up.

Ms. Zimmerman’s plethora of factual errors should be corrected in her Fox News piece before they further misinform the public and Capitol Hill.  Ms. Zimmerman is correct that federal and state governments do not consistently record the number of incarcerated illegal immigrants – and that should change – but her numerous errors in interpreting government documents and other bloggers have compounded the harm done by poor government record keeping.