Topic: International Economics, Development & Immigration

Trump’s Latest Plan Shows That the Pro-Immigrant Side Is Winning

President Trump’s first legal immigration reform plan from August 2017 called for a 50 percent cut to the system. His second plan in January 2018 revised this to 38 percent. His third in June 2018 dropped the cuts to 10 percent. Now, his latest immigration plan drops all cuts. By this time next year, Trump could finally propose what the academic consensus says would create the most economic growth: a significant increase in legal immigration. The president’s flawed proposal is still a signal that the pro-immigrant side is winning.  

The White House’s one-pager about the plan is, to put it charitably, light on the details, but from what we know now, we can say that it is a decidedly mixed bag. Its only positive feature is that it increases skilled immigration, though less than the reform bill that passed the Senate in 2013. But it more than offsets this increase by making it much more difficult to request asylum, capping the refugee program, banning U.S. citizens from sponsoring their siblings, parents, or adult children, and ending the diversity visa lottery. It also hints that it would impose the useless and error-prone E-Verify program on every American employer and employee.

The problem is that the president continues to view immigration as a zero-sum game in which one group of immigrants must suffer if another group benefits. U.S. employers can hire skilled workers without separating U.S. citizens from their immediate family members. The current level of immigration has no justification in morality or economics. Congress arbitrarily arrived at that number. The United States lags far behind other developed countries in net immigration. Indeed, it ranks in the bottom third for net immigration from 2015 to 2017 among countries with a per capita GDP above $20,000.

The biggest unknown is how the White House plan will address the 4 million people currently waiting for a green card in the family-sponsored immigration system—many of whom have already waited a decade or more. Prior proposals had canceled their applications and booted them from the lines. If that occurs under this plan, Congress should reject it on that basis alone. Not only is it incredibly unfair to abandon the promises that the United States has made to those people, but doing so would inevitably cause many to lose faith in the legal immigration system, adding to the rush at the border.

Table 1 provides a breakdown of the proposed legal immigration changes by category. These are estimates based on the statement that 57 percent of immigrants would be skills-based, 33 percent family-sponsored, and 10 percent humanitarian. The only way to reach these figures is by eliminating all family categories except spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens and ending the diversity visa lottery. It also requires reducing the numbers of refugees from their 2017 peak of 120,356 to the new proposed permanent cap of 50,000 (which is actually higher than the president’s 2019 cap of 30,000). Then, if you reallocate all the green cards to the points system, you arrive at 57 percent being skilled or employer-sponsored.

But there are important caveats to this table. First, we know that the asylum program will be cut by new restrictions on border asylum claims. Second, we don’t know how restrictive the points system will be. The White House states that it will include people with “extraordinary talent,” “professional and specialized vocations,” and “exceptional students.” But those categories could be drawn very narrowly or very expansively. Third, the president implied that all future immigrants will be required to learn English before they even arrive. If that applies even to spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens, that would further cut legal immigration.

White House Immigration Plan’s Changes to the Green Card System

Comments on the details of the plan:

Cuts to the diversity and family programs: There is no economic justification for eliminating the diversity lottery program or the family-sponsored categories. President Trump equates these programs with “low-skilled” immigration, but this is untrue. Nearly half of all family-sponsored immigrants and diversity lottery winners have a college degree, meaning that they are far better educated than U.S.-born Americans. This is nearly the same level of education as the average Canadian immigrant.

Even if cuts to family and diversity immigrants resulted in fewer immigrants with less education, this is not a benefit to the U.S. economy, which still needs low-skilled workers. Nearly half of all job growth over this decade will come from jobs that don’t require a college degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and even in 2026, 73 percent of jobs will still not require a college degree. Low-skilled immigrants start with lower wages, but they see faster wage growth than employer-sponsored immigrants, leading their wages to converge with U.S.-born workers.

Moreover, the academic consensus is that for the majority of low-skilled U.S.-born workers, immigration increases their wages (even Harvard’s George Borjas agrees). How can this be? Well, U.S. workers respond to increases in low-skilled immigration by shifting to less manually intensive jobs.

Cuts to asylum and the refugee program: The White House wants to impose a cap on the refugee program of 50,000 and make it more difficult to file asylum claims at the border. Yet according to the Trump administration’s Health and Human Services, refugees and asylees from 2005 to 2014 paid $63 billion more in taxes than they received in benefits to all levels of government. Refugees and asylees had a more positive fiscal effect because 81 percent were in their prime working years compared to just 63 percent of the U.S. population overall. The existence of asylum at the border has significantly reduced the rate of deaths at the border by illegal crossers as well. Asylum seekers receive background checks and health screenings at the border, making them preferable to the previous waves of illegal crossers.

New points system: Increasing the number of green cards for skilled workers is unequivocally positive and the president should be commended for abandoning his former-bills that did not increase skilled immigration, even while slashing the other immigration programs. But the market should determine the qualifications for workers, not the federal government. If this points system is too restrictive (e.g. focusing only on Nobel prize winners, valedictorians, etc.), not all of the green cards will be used, and it could actually result in a cut to legal immigration. 

Any points system should have as a baseline requirement having a job or job offer from a U.S. employer. Beyond that, prioritization within the system should focus primarily on workers with the highest wage offers because a high wage indicates high productivity. It is also appropriate to consider age insofar as younger workers have more time to contribute economically to the United States. Finally, some consideration should be given to workers with a proven track record for employment in the United States. Other factors—such as occupations, English language ability, educational attainment, good grades, or awards—are irrelevant and should not be included. Unfortunately, the president implies that the plan could include some of those factors, though the White House outline doesn’t lay out in detail how it will work.

Requiring English language proficiency and civics exam: Employers should determine the skills that are needed.  As studies have repeatedly shown, Americans actually benefit from immigrants who speak less English because it allows Americans to specialize in jobs requiring language skills, creating complementarities in the labor market that make both groups more productive. The government should not add irrelevant criteria for employment in the United States like a civics exam. Employers should decide which workers to hire. A civics exam and an English test are already appropriately required to become a citizen, not merely to come to live and work. Moreover, requiring English language of spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens would be an affront to Americans’ freedom to marry who they choose and adopt children who may not speak the language.

E-Verify mandate: E-Verify is the government’s attempt at a national identification system. The White House outline doesn’t explicitly name E-Verify but rather states that the plan “will ensure that all employees are legally authorized to work.” Many states already require employers to use it, and from those experiments, we know that E-Verify doesn’t stop illegal employment and that hundreds of thousands of legal workers have had their jobs delayed or terminated due to errors in the system. A mandate to use it would be probably the largest regulation in scope in the history of the United States in that it would affect every single employee and employer in the country. This aspect of the plan is unequivocally negative, though the Senate has included it in each of its major overhaul efforts in 2006, 2007, and 2013. 

In conclusion, this proposal does nothing to address other important immigration reforms, including the 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, the “dreamer” population, or the inadequate lesser-skilled guest worker programs. While it leaves out a lot and makes some big mistakes, the president is giving up an important talking point with his latest plan: that there are just too many immigrants coming to this country. That’s a win for the pro-immigrant side.

Immigration Form Denials Rise Every Quarter Except One Under Trump, Up 80% Overall

New data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that adjudicates applications for immigrants, reveals that the agency is denying applications by immigrants at a higher rate. The denial rate for all applications—everything from travel and work authorizations to petitions for foreign workers—has risen every quarter except one under the Trump administration.

Overall, in the first quarter of fiscal year 2019, USCIS had a denial rate 80 percent above that for the first quarter of FY 17—the last full quarter of Obama’s term (October to December 2016). The denial rate increased from 7.4 percent in quarter 1 of FY 17 to 13.2 percent in quarter 1 of FY 19. Figure 1 shows the trend by quarter from FY 16 to FY 19.

Figure 1: Denial rate for all immigration benefits by quarter

The denial rate in the first quarter of 2019 was the highest for any quarter for the period that USCIS has published records, FY 13 to FY 19. The higher denial rate translates to more than 72,000 denials in quarter one of FY 19. These data exclude applications for citizenship and include all other USCIS applications except those for DACA and TPS—two programs for illegal immigrants that the president has tried to virtually eliminate—but the trends are similar regardless. They do not include visa applications that are made to the U.S. Department of State, though denial rates have increased there as well.

Figure 2 highlights the trend for affirmative asylum applications by quarter from FY 16 to FY 19. These applications do not include those made “defensively” in immigration court by illegal border crossers. The data show that from the first quarter of FY 17 to the first quarter of FY 19, the denial rate for affirmative asylum applications rose from 0.8 percent to 5.1 percent—a 515 percent increase.

Figure 2: Denial Rate for Affirmative Asylum Applications

Figure 3 shows the denial rate for T visa applications by quarter from FY 16 to FY 19. These applications grant legal status to victims of severe human trafficking. From the first quarter of FY 17 to the first quarter of FY 19, the denial rate for T visa applications rose from 11.3 percent to 43.3 percent—a 284 percent increase.

Figure 3: Denial Rate for T Visa Applications (Trafficking Victims)

Figure 4 provides the trend for family-based adjustment of status applications. These applications grant permanent residence (i.e. a green card) to immigrants. The denial rate has increased from 11.2 percent in the first quarter of FY 17 to 14.6 percent in the first quarter of FY 19—a 30 percent increase. As it shows, however, the trend started before FY 17. The increase since quarter 1 of FY 16 has been 60 percent.

Figure 4: Denial rate for family-based adjustments of status (Green Cards)

Figure 5 provides the trend for the denial rate for employment authorization documents (EAD) by quarter from FY 16 to FY 19. Some immigrants whose status doesn’t automatically include it can apply for permission to work. These include applicants for asylum or certain spouses of H-1B visa holders who have pending green card applications. The EAD denial rate has increased from 4.7 percent in the first quarter of FY 17 to 10.5 percent in the first quarter of FY 19—a 123 percent increase.

Figure 5: Denial rate for employment authorization documents

Figure 6 shows the trend for petitions for nonimmigrant workers (I-129 forms). These are applications that employers make on behalf of foreign guest workers, such as H-1B high-skilled workers and H-2A seasonal farm workers. The denial rate has increased from 17.6 percent in the first quarter of FY 17 to 28 percent in the first quarter of FY 19—a 59 percent increase.

Figure 6: Denial rate for petitions for nonimmigrant workers

Figure 7 illustrates the denial rate for advanced parole from FY 16 to FY 19. Advanced parole provides immigrants advanced permission to leave and reenter the United States without triggering certain consequences. Green card applicants often use advanced parole to travel internationally while their green card application is still pending. The denial rate increased from 8.4 percent in the first quarter of FY 17 to 14.7 percent in the first quarter of FY 19—a 75 percent increase.

Figure 7: Denial Rate for Advanced Parole (Travel Authorization)

The higher denial actually comes as the agency has received fewer applications. Total applications—again excluding citizenship, DACA, and TPS—have fallen from 1.7 million in quarter one of FY 17 to 1.3 million in quarter one of FY 19. The higher denials are caused by a variety of immigration changes, including the president’s “Buy American, Hire American” and “extreme vetting” executive orders. USCIS also increased the length and complexity of its immigration forms—doubling or tripling their length—and the government has also changed its standards for asylum. It has made issuing denials easier and is looking over the shoulders of adjudicators.

These denial rates come from only one of the agencies responsible for immigration, but this phenomenon spans the administration. U.S. Department of State and Department of Justice, which handle some types of applications, also have increased denials. The ultimate goal of this administration is simple: less immigration—illegal or legal.

Why Measles Making the News Is a Sign of Progress

A set of measles outbreaks in Washington state, New York City, and elsewhere, is making national headlines and frightening parents around the United States. Counter-intuitively, measles making the news is a sign of progress. Not long ago, measles was so common that it was simply not newsworthy. Suffering from the extremely infectious disease, which causes spotty rashes and a hacking cough, was widespread and often deadly.

It was once the case that even royalty fell victim to diseases now easily preventable with routine shots given during childhood. Measles killed the un-vaccinated King Kamehameha II of Hawaii, and his queen, Kamamalu, in the 1800s. A century prior to that, King Louis XIV of France lost his brother, son, grandson, and great-grandson to smallpox. Smallpox once claimed approximately 400,000 lives annually in Europe in the late 18th century, and in the 20th century, it caused hundreds of millions of deaths around the world. Thanks to vaccines, smallpox was eradicated in 1980.

As recently as the late 1950s and early 1960s, nearly twice as many children died from measles as from the polio disease. Thanks, once again, to vaccines, polio was eliminated from the United States in 1979.

Recent coverage by the Washington Post of the current measles outbreaks contains an amazing anecdote of a measles victim’s visit to a doctor: “the doctor, who had never seen measles, misdiagnosed the man’s fever and cough as bronchitis.” That measles is now so rare that even a trained medical doctor cannot recognize it, when just a generation ago it was a common childhood ailment, is truly a triumph of medical progress.


As recently as 1990, measles caused over 22 deaths per 100,000 people globally. Thanks to the measles vaccine and rising global vaccination rates, that figure fell to just over 1 per 100,000  people by 2016, the most recent year for which there is data. That represents a decline in measles deaths of over 95 percent.

The current uptick in measles cases is troubling. But the fact that measles cases are making the news at all is a testament to medical progress.

Criminal Aliens Are Not Surging the Border

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) just announced that they have apprehended 531,711 people so far during the fiscal year (FY) 2019.  CBP apprehended 109,144 people in April alone, marking the second month in a row that more than 100,000 people have been apprehended.  Relative to the end of April in FY 2018, apprehensions this year are up 84 percent and the number is more than double just for the month of April relative to last April.  Although the number of apprehensions is rising, the number of criminal aliens encountered by CBP is continuing to drop.

CBP defines criminal aliens as those who have been convicted of crimes here or abroad if the conviction is for conduct which is also a crime in the United States. From the beginning of FY 2015 through the end of April 2019, the absolute number and percent of criminal aliens encountered by CBP, which includes Border Patrol and the Office of Field Operations, have fallen in every year.  In 2015, about 4.9 percent of all CBP apprehensions were criminal aliens. For FY 2019 through the end of April, only about 1.9 percent of people apprehended by CBP were criminal aliens.

The absolute number of criminal aliens apprehended is also dropping.  If the number of criminal aliens apprehended continues to decline apace for FY 2019, the absolute number will be also about 35 percent below the total number apprehended in 2015.  To put that in perspective, CBP has already apprehended about 87,000 more people so far in FY 2019 than in all of FY 2015.

From FY 2015 to FY 2019, the percentage of those apprehended by CBP who were non-criminals rose from 95.1 percent to 98.1 percent while the percentage who were criminals fell from 4.9 percent to 1.9 percent (Figure 1).  In absolute numbers, criminal aliens have also declined from 26,932 apprehensions in FY 2015 to 10,173 through the first seven months of FY 2019.  If the trend of criminal alien apprehensions continues for the rest of FY2019, there will be about 17,439 by the end of this FY – well below the 20,486 recorded in 2018.

Figure 1: Non-Criminal and Criminal Aliens

The most persistent argument in support of closing the border, harsher border security methods, or restricting asylum is that those being apprehended are criminals who pose a serious threat to Americans.  Based on data supplied by CBP, the absolute number of criminal aliens and their proportion of all apprehensions along the border are lower in FY 2019 than in previous years.  Furthermore, these numbers provide evidence that the current surge of Central American women and children is better from an American security perspective than a large surge of single men.  Although the current immigration issues on the border present challenges, they do not present serious criminal challenges.

New Research on Immigration, Terrorism, and Ideology

Yesterday, Cato released my latest policy analysis entitled “Terrorists by Immigration Status and Nationality: A Risk Analysis, 1975-2017.”  Much of it is an update and expansion of my original policy analysis on this topic from 2016.  I added two more years of data, estimates of the number of people injured, and a handful of non-deadly foreign-born terrorists whom I had failed to include in my original paper.  The annual risk of being murdered in an attack committed by a foreign-born terrorist by visa category is very similar to my original study as there were only a handful of victims from attacks perpetrated by foreign-born terrorists in 2016 and 2017. 

Overall, the chance of being murdered by a foreign-born terrorist was about 1 in 3.8 million per year during the 43-year period in which 3,037 people were murdered.  Foreign-born terrorists who entered on tourist visas were the most deadly, responsible for over 96 percent of those deaths – largely because 18 out of the 19 9/11 hijackers entered on tourist visas.      

The changes to this analysis mentioned above are small, but there are two major additions that you should pay attention to.  The first is that I included all 788 native-born terrorists during this time by applying the same exclusion criteria that I applied to foreign-born terrorists.  It took years and reading tens of thousands of pages of government documents, news stories, dissertations, reports by non-profits, and more biographies of sketchy people than I care to remember.  Just for the record, there are a lot of Nazis who have been killed in shootouts with the police but most of them are not terrorists.  All 788 native-born terrorists are listed in the appendix.  If you think I missed somebody or included somebody I shouldn’t have, please let me know. 

The second major addition to the updated policy analysis is that I categorized all terrorists by the ideology that motivated them.  In order of the size of their body counts, the ideologies are Islamism, Right, White Supremacy, Left, Black Nationalism, Anti-abortion, Unknown/Other, Foreign Nationalism (Armenian terrorists targeting Turks in revenge for the genocide), Separatists (Puerto Rican independence, Texas secessionists, etc.), Anti-specific Religion (anti-Semitic shooters, etc.), Political Assassination, and Religious (non-Islamist).

I decided to separate White Supremacists, Right, and Anti-Abortion terrorists because they are all different ideologies.  True, they would mostly all label themselves as right-wing, but this enhanced level of detail conveys a deeper understanding of American terrorism.  Most Black Nationalists, Left, and Separatist terrorists would also label themselves as left-wing, but I made the same judgment call and separated them into their sub-ideologies for the same reason.  Similarly, separating Islamist terrorists into Sunnis or Shiites wouldn’t add much clarity so I didn’t do that.    

After the Christchurch mosque terrorist attack in New Zealand in March, many people wrote that right-wing or white-supremacist terrorism is on the rise.  While my updated report only covers the United States through 2017 and most of those writers were discussing the issue globally, my research can provide some evidence of whether this is true inside of the United States.

Over the entire 43-year period, the deadliness of Islamist terrorism dwarfs Right, White Supremacy, and Anti-abortion terrorism by factors of 16, 40, and 239, respectively.  The picture changes somewhat more recently as Islamists are responsible for 58 percent of all murders in terrorist attacks since 9/11, White Supremacists are responsible for 17 percent, Right terrorists for 10 percent, Left terrorists for 8 percent, and then the numbers get tiny.  Islamism is still the deadliest terrorist ideology in the post-9/11 world relative to Right, White Supremacy, and Anti-abortion, but by smaller factors of 6, 3, and 27, respectively.  Those numbers may well have diverged in 2018 and 2019, but I doubt they’ve changed enough to alter the general pattern.

Since 9/11, 184 people have been murdered by 378 terrorists in attacks on U.S. soil.  Of those 378 attackers, 62 managed to murder at least one person in an attack.  That means that only 16.4 percent of attackers succeeded in murdering somebody.  On this count, Right and White Supremacist terrorists are the most likely to succeed in murdering at least one person in their attacks at 28 and 22 percent, respectively.  Islamist terrorists have been less successful, with only 9 percent of them succeeding in murdering at least one person.  However, because there were so many Islamist terrorists and each one of them was deadlier on average, that ideology still inspires the deadliest terrorists.  It’s a bit premature to write the epitaph for Islamist terrorism in the United States.     

The main lesson from this report is that there are very few terrorists of any ideology or origin and even fewer who manage to murder Americans.  The 3,518 total murder victims of terrorism killed by foreign-born, native-born, and unknown terrorists from 1975-2017 account for only about 0.4 percent of the roughly 800,000 homicides during that time.  The ideology, frequency, deadliness, and origins of terrorists are fascinating but these numbers are so small that it is difficult to tease out any trend, let alone to be overwhelmed by fear. 

Amid Crisis, Ports Process 34% Fewer Central Americans

For the first time ever, two countries—Guatemala and Honduras—have surpassed Mexico as the top nations of origin for immigrants apprehended crossing illegally into the United States. Along with El Salvador, immigrants from three Northern Triangle countries of Central America have made up three quarters of Border Patrol apprehensions this year.

Nearly all Central Americans cross the border and seek out a Border Patrol agent to turn themselves in to. The primary reason that they do this, rather than come to a port to apply, is that Customs and Border Protection has capped the number of undocumented immigrants it will process at ports. This means that officers will physically block their entry to the port and force them back into Mexico.

The current cap—which has no basis in the asylum laws—is about 10,000 per month, roughly half the level in October 2016. It has remained at about this level for over a year. But that’s just the overall number. For Central Americans from the Northern Triangle of Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador, the numbers of undocumented arrivals processed at ports plummeted in Fiscal Year 2019—they’ve fallen 34% from a monthly average of 2,920 to 1,938 (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Monthly average number of undocumented Central Americans

At this pace, CBP will process 23,250 Central Americans at ports this year compared to 35,041 last year. Salvadorans are down 38 percent, Guatemalans 46 percent, and Hondurans 12 percent. This is happening at the same time that the number crossing illegally between ports has doubled for each nationality. Honduran illegal crossings have nearly tripled. The share of undocumented Central Americans processed at ports fell from 14 to 4 percent.

Unfortunately, CBP has not published full data back to FY 2016, but it has quarterly figures for unaccompanied children and families from FY 2017 to FY 2019. These two groups accounted for 86 percent of undocumented Central Americans at ports during the last two and a half years. These statistics show that CBP has reduced processing of Central American unaccompanied children and families at ports by 63 percent from the first quarter of FY 2017 to the second quarter of FY 2019. Salvadorans are down 86 percent, Guatemalan 68 percent, and Honduran 20 percent.

Figure 2: Undocumented Central American unaccompanied children and families

The initial decline in the second quarter of 2017 was caused by fewer migrants coming overall, due to the belief that the new administration would end asylum. The more recent decline is mainly because more Nicaraguans, Indians, and Cubans are arriving at U.S. borders this year, so immigrants from the Northern Triangle of Central America—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—have lost cap space at ports. The Northern Triangle share of undocumented immigrants from countries other than Mexico processed at ports of entry has fallen from 65 percent to 41 percent. One cause of this dynamic is that the ending of the “wet foot, dry foot” policy has forced Cubans into the regular asylum process, adding the lines of asylum seekers at ports of entry in Mexico.

Figure 3: Monthly average number of undocumented Central Americans

The inevitable response to this exclusion at ports has been for Central Americans to walk around the ports and cross illegally. Central American asylum seekers are not safe in Mexico. Tijuana and Juarez are particularly inhospitable places for homeless foreigners, and the police in Mexico not only won’t protect them but often engage in shakedowns of immigrants themselves.

The most outrageous part of the capping of asylum seekers at ports is that it encourages illegal entries. The purported reason for the cap is that CBP lacks the resources to process them, but it lacks the resources precisely because the agency hasn’t deployed the resources or adopted the policies necessary to process them. That’s because it really doesn’t want to process them.

This is even more ridiculous when you consider that the government also lacks the resources to process asylum seekers between ports of entry—at least in the exact way that it wants. Yet the agency has adopted emergency measures to make it happen: creating temporary holding areas outside, not referring families for asylum interviews, releasing immigrants at the border without transferring them to the interior, and—believe it or not—moving officers at ports (!) to between ports. All of these measures only further encourage illegal crossings.

The government has seemingly created the perfect storm of perverse incentives at the border to perpetuate a crisis rather than defuse one. It could process people at ports and end most illegal crossings tomorrow. But its chosen policies are only making the problem worse.

Agencies Charged with Enforcing Immigration Laws Incarcerate Immigrants, Unsurprisingly

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) recently released a report on immigrants incarcerated in the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and as pretrial detainees by the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS).  The report offers some comments on state and local incarceration of non-citizens, but no systematic information.  BOP and USMS are both agencies within the DOJ, so it is simpler to look at the numbers for the DOJ altogether.

The DHS and DOJ are two agencies charged with enforcing immigration laws and incarcerating those who violate them, so it is unsurprising that a large percentage of those incarcerated in federal prisons are there for violating immigration offenses.  According to the report, about 19 percent of those incarcerated in the BOP or held by the USMS are known or suspected illegal immigrants and about 6 percent are legal non-citizens.  The remaining 75 percent are U.S. citizens, but some unknown percentage of them are likely immigrants too.  Non-citizens are about 7 percent of the entire U.S. population so they are overrepresented in federal prison.  

The report breaks down the primary offenses that non-citizens are incarcerated or held for in federal custody.  The most common primary offense was immigration at 38 percent, followed by drug offenses at 37 percent.  Other crimes comprise the remaining 25 percent.  The report does not show the number of primary offenses committed by illegal immigrants.  Through the 3rd quarter of 2018, about 33.7 percent of new offenders were sentenced for immigration offenses according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.  Turns out that non-citizens are more likely to be sentenced for immigration offenses, which is not surprising.

More importantly, the federal prison population and those held by the USMS are not representative of incarcerated populations nationwide, so excluding them from the report means that it sheds little light on nationwide incarcerations by nativity, legal status, or type of crime.  Of the roughly 2.3 million people incarcerated in 2018, only about 8.3 percent were in federal prisons or held by USMS while the rest are in state and local facilities.    

Federal crimes are also vastly different from state crimes, so the criminals incarcerated in the federal system are very different from those on the state level.  Through the 3rd quarter of 2018, 50,929 people were sentenced to federal prison for federal crimes – 33.7 percent for immigration crimes.  Those immigration convictions comprised 100 percent of the convictions for immigration crimes in the United States in 2018 through the 3rd quarter.  By contrast, there were only 94 federal convictions for murder or manslaughter during the same time.  Although the data for murders in 2018 are not released yet, those federal murder convictions will likely account for less than 1 percent of all murders nationwide if past years are any guide.  For instance, if Mollie Tibbets accused killer is convicted then he’ll be in state prison and not counted in the federal homicide conviction statistics.  

It’s important to understand the number of crimes caused by illegal immigrants, their criminal conviction rates, and their incarceration rates.  But doing so requires examining state-level data in addition to federal data so looking at only the latter produces a non-representative and inaccurate picture of the problem.  Based on the limited evidence that we have, illegal immigrants are less crime-prone than native-born Americans but more crime-prone than legal immigrants.