illegal immigrants

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.

Illegal Immigrants and Crime – Assessing the Evidence

Whether illegal immigrants bring a significant amount of crime to the United States is one of the most important questions to answer in the debate over immigration policy.  President Trump also seems to think so as he launched his campaign in 2015 with the now infamous quote: “[Mexican illegal immigrants] are bringing drugs.  They’re bringing crime.  They’re rapists.  And some, I assume, are good people.”  From executive orders to major talking points to the President’s speeches, which Vox reporter Dara Lind has aptly described as “immigrants are coming over the border to kill you,” Trump is interested in this important topic.  

It is difficult to know whether illegal immigrants are more likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans are.  All immigrants have a lower criminal incarceration rate and there are lower crime rates in the neighborhoods where they live, according to the near-unanimous findings of the peer-reviewed evidence.  Since 1911, large nationwide federal immigration commissions have asked whether immigrants are more crime-prone than native-born Americans and each one of them answered no, even when the rest of their reports unjustifiably blamed immigrants for virtually every problem in the United States.  From the 1911 Immigration Commission, also known as the Dillingham Commission, to the 1931 Wickersham Commission, and 1994’s Barbara Jordan Commission, each has reported that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. 

That research combines legal and illegal immigrants to calculate a crime rate for all immigrants, but the modern debate is over the crime rates of illegal immigrants.  Most people seem to accept that legal immigrants have lower crime rates than natives.  Measuring illegal immigrant crime rates is challenging for several reasons.  First, the American Community Survey does not ask which inmates in adult correctional facilities are illegal immigrants.  Second, federal data on the number of illegal immigrants incarcerated on the state and local level is recorded through the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP), which is a combination of stocks and flows that is incomparable to any other measure of inmates.  Third, 49 states do not record the immigration statuses of those in prison or convicted.  Until recently, these data limitations allowed pundits to say anything about illegal immigrant crime without fear of being fact-checked. 

Cato scholars have since published numerous Immigration Research and Policy Briefs to shed light on this topic.  Michelangelo Landgrave, a doctoral student in political science at the University of California, Riverside, and I released a paper today that estimates that illegal immigrant incarceration rates are about half those of native-born Americans in 2017.  In the same year, legal immigrant incarceration rates are then again half those of illegal immigrants.  Those results are similar to what Landgrave and I published for the years 2014 and 2016.  We estimated illegal immigrant incarceration rates by using the same residual method that demographers use to estimate the number of illegal immigrants in the United States, only we also applied that method to the prison population.  We used the same method to also find that the incarceration rate for young illegal immigrants brought here as children and theoretically eligible for deferred action is slightly below those of native-born Americans.

The second strand of research from Cato looks at criminal conviction rates by immigration status in the state of Texas.  Unlike every other state, Texas keeps track of the immigration statuses of convicted criminals and the crimes that they committed.  Texas is a wonderful state to study because it borders Mexico, has a large illegal immigrant population, is a politically conservative state governed by Republicans, had no jurisdictions that limited its cooperation with federal immigration enforcement in 2015, and it has a law and order reputation for strictly enforcing criminal laws.  If anything, Texas is more serious about enforcing laws against illegal immigrant criminals than other states.  But even here, illegal immigrant conviction rates are about half those of native-born Americans – without any controls for age, education, ethnicity, or any other characteristic.  The illegal immigrant conviction rates for homicide, larceny, and sex crimes are also below those of native-born Americans.  The criminal conviction rates for legal immigrants are the lowest of all.

Illegal Immigrant Conviction Rates Are Low, Even When Factoring in Recidivism

 Over the last two years, Cato has published three Immigration Research and Policy Briefs on illegal immigrant criminality.  In each one, we found that illegal immigrants have lower criminal conviction rates in the state of Texas and lower nationwide incarceration rates relative to native-born Americans.  Although nobody has criticized our methods or the data, we answer other criticisms that arise.

The best recent criticism is that illegal immigrant conviction rates are low because they are deported after they serve their sentences, which reduces their recidivism rates relative to native-born Americans who cannot be deported after being released from prison.  Thus, the illegal immigrant incarceration or conviction rates are lower than those of native-born Americans because it is more difficult for them to recidivate as they would have to enter the country illegally again to do so.  This has been a difficult criticism to address as data limitations are severe, but we attempted to do so after making some assumptions.  We focused on comparing first-time criminal conviction rates.

We estimate that native-born Texans had a first-time criminal conviction rate of 683 per 100,000 natives in 2016.  In the same year, we estimate that illegal immigrants had a first-time criminal conviction rate of 462 per 100,000 illegal immigrants – 32 percent below that of native-born Americans.  Thus, about 36 percent of the gap that we observed in criminal conviction rates between illegal immigrants and native-born Americans can be explained by lower illegal immigrant recidivism that is likely due to their deportation. 

This question could have been easily resolved by comparing the immigration statuses of first-time offenders.  Of course, such data do not exist.  Regardless, this is still an important question even if our estimate results from a back of the envelope estimate.  You can judge for yourself how we came to this estimate.  This is how we did it. 

First, we used the Arizona state prison data from 2016 for those admitted to state prison that year.  Of U.S. citizens sent to prison that year, 58 percent had previously been to prison at some point since 1984.  The subpopulation of deportable non-citizens, which includes illegal immigrants but is not limited to them, had a recidivism rate of 47 percent – below those of U.S. citizens, but not that much below. 

Peter Kirsanow’s Numerous Errors

Last Thursday, Tucker Carlson invited Peter Kirsanow onto his top-rated Fox News show Tucker Carlson Tonight to discuss illegal immigration and crime. They began the segment by playing a recent clip of me and Carlson arguing about data on illegal immigrant criminality in Texas. In that earlier segment, Carlson said we don’t have good data on illegal immigrant criminality and I said we do, specifically from the state of Texas. The data show that illegal immigrants have a lower murder conviction rate than native-born Americans. 

Kirsanow responded to my clip in a multi-minute near-monologue. Unfortunately, Kirsanow made many errors and misstatements. His comments on television parroted a piece that he wrote earlier this year in National Review. That piece made so many mathematical, definitional, and logical errors that I rebutted it in detail in Reason this February.

Since I was not invited on Thursday’s segment to debate Kirsanow while he criticized my points and presented his own, I’ve decided to respond here.  Below are Kirsanow’s quotes from his recent appearance on Tucker Carlson Tonight, followed by my rebuttal.

Another Confusing Federal Report on Immigrant Incarceration

The Departments of Justice and Homeland Security (DOJ/DHS) will be publishing a quarterly report on immigrant incarceration in federal prisons because of an Executive Order issued by President Trump last year.  The most recent report found that 20 percent of all inmates in federal prison are foreign-born and about 93 percent of them are likely illegal immigrants.  Since immigrants are only about 13.5 percent of the population and illegal immigrants are only about a quarter of all immigrants, many are misreading it and coming away with the impression that foreign-born people are more crime-prone than natives. 

That is simply not true.

This new DOJ/DHS report only includes those incarcerated in federal prisons, which is not a representative sample of all incarcerated persons in the United States.  Federal prisons include a higher percentage of foreign-born prisoners than state and local correctional facilities because violations of immigration and smuggling laws are federal offenses and violators of those laws are incarcerated in federal prisons.        

The report itself almost admits as much with this important disclaimer: 

This report does not include data on the alien populations in state prisons and local jails because state and local facilities do not routinely provide DHS or DOJ with comprehensive information about their inmates and detainees—which account for approximately 90 percent of the total U.S. incarcerated population.

Criminal Conviction Rates in Texas in 2016

Cato published my recent Immigration Research and Policy Brief that relied on Texas state criminal data to compare the conviction rates of native-born Americans, legal immigrants, and illegal immigrants. That Texas state data was of such high quality that I was even able to compare conviction rates by the type of crime. The result was that in 2015 the criminal conviction and arrest rates for illegal immigrants were below that of native-born Americans for virtually all crimes including homicide, sexual assault, and larceny. This is just further evidence that illegal immigrants are less crime-prone than native-born Americans. I had to limit my Brief to focus on convictions only in 2015, although I also had the Texas conviction data for 2016, because there were no estimates of the illegal immigrant population statewide for the latter year. 

Since Cato published my brief in February, the estimable Center for Migration Studies published an update of the estimated number of illegal immigrants in Texas for 2016. The following graphs and numbers are the conviction rates for native-born Americans, legal immigrants, and illegal immigrants in the state of Texas in 2016. The conviction rate is the number of convictions per group (native, legal immigrants, and illegal immigrants) divided by the number of Texas residents in each group multiplied by 100,000. The final multiplication step produces the conviction rate per 100,000 residents in each subpopulation, which is how criminologists and the governments portray incarceration, crime, and conviction rates. This is the best way to portray relative crime rates as it controls the different size of the subpopulations.

The criminal conviction rate for native-born Americans in Texas was 2,116 per 100,000 natives in 2016 (Figure 1). The native-born criminal conviction rate was thus 2.4 times as high as the criminal conviction rate for illegal immigrants in that year and 7.2 times as high as that of legal immigrants. 

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