As reported by Vivian Yee in the NY Times:
About one in five inmates in federal prison are foreign-born, and more than 90 percent of those are in the United States illegally, according to a report released on Thursday by the Trump administration, which has sought to highlight the dangers it says unauthorized immigrants pose to public safety.
Officials at the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security quickly framed the statistics as evidence that the country needed stricter anti-immigration measures, particularly the wall President Trump has pushed to erect across the southern border.
The report arrives as the White House and Republicans in Congress insist that any legislative deal to restore legal protections for young immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children must include more restrictions on legal and illegal immigration.
. . . .
Administration officials have repeatedly emphasized what it says are links between unauthorized immigrants and crime, even opening an office to advocate for the victims of crimes committed by immigrants. But a large body of research has suggested that immigrants are no more likely, and often less likely, to commit serious crimes than native-born Americans.
The proportion of unauthorized immigrants in federal prison may be explained partly by the fact that immigration offenses now account for about half of all federal prosecutions, including those for smuggling people into the United States, illegally entering the country and illegally re-entering the country after being deported.”
Predictably, Attorney General Jeff Sessions seized upon the report to re-iterate his oft-made claim that we’re in the middle of an “alien crime wave:”
“At the border and in communities across America, our citizens are being victimized by illegal aliens who commit crimes,” the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, said in a statement on Thursday, calling on Congress to pass Mr. Trump’s immigration agenda. “The simple fact is that any offense committed by a criminal alien is ultimately preventable.”
Also predictably, Sessions’s claim was vigorously rejected by pro-immigrant advocacy groups:
“The report proves one thing only: The administration will take any opportunity possible to twist facts to demonize immigrants,” said Tom Jawetz, the vice president for immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. “The vast majority of immigrants in federal prison are there for crimes that only immigrants can be charged with — illegal entry and illegal entry after removal. When you cook the books you shouldn’t pretend to be surprised by the results.”
The Administration’s conclusions were also rejected in a report filed by Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute, a Libertarian think tank:
“The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) today released a report that found that about 94 percent of foreign-born inmates in Federal prisons are illegal immigrants. That is not surprising, as illegal immigrants convicted of an immigration offense are incarcerated in federal prison and account 7.3 percent of all inmates. Likewise, drug traffickers who cross international borders are also in federal prison and account 46.3 percent of all prisoners. Thus, illegal immigrants are overrepresented in federal prison because the federal government enforces immigration laws and many drug trafficking laws but only a small fraction of all those incarcerated for all crimes committed in the U.S. are in federal prisons.
The authors of this DHS/DOJ report do deserve credit for highlighting its shortcomings. On the first page, it states:
This report does not include data on the foreign-born or 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. This limitation is noteworthy because state and local facilities account for approximately 90 percent of the total U.S. incarcerated population.
The federal prison population is not representative of incarcerated populations on the state and local level, so excluding them from the report means that it sheds little light on nationwide incarcerations by nativity, legal status, or type of crime. On the last point, it is shocking how unrepresentative federal prison is regarding the types of crimes its inmates are convicted of. In 2016, 67,742 people were sentenced to federal prison. Almost 30 percent of them were for immigration offenses. Those immigration convictions comprised 100 percent of the convictions for immigration crimes in the United States in 2016. By contrast, there were only 85 federal convictions for murder out of a nationwide total of 17,785 murder convictions that year, comprising less than 0.5 percent of all murders.
If Garcia Zarate had actually been convicted of murdering Kate Steinle, then he would have been incarcerated in California state prison and he would not show up as an illegal immigrant murderer in this DHS/DOJ report. What good is a federal report on illegal immigrant incarceration rates if it would have excluded Kate Steinle’s killer had he been convicted?
The DHS/DOJ report also explained why they did not include an estimate of illegal immigrants incarcerated on the state and local level:
DHS and DOJ are working to develop a reliable methodology for estimating the status of state and local incarcerated populations in future reports.
A March 2017 Cato Institute Immigration Research and Policy Brief employed a commonly used residual statistical methodology to analyze the incarcerated population in the U.S. Census for 2014. We found that illegal immigrants were about 44 percent less likely to be incarcerated than native-born Americans. I look forward to reviewing any methodology that the federal government comes up with but illegal immigrant criminals would have to be severely undercounted in prisons to give them an incarceration rate that even approaches native-born Americans.
The broad finding among criminologists and economists who study this topic is that immigrants are less crime-prone than natives whether measured by the areas where they live or their incarceration rates. Although there is less research on illegal immigrant criminals, the general finding is that they are less crime-prone or about as criminally inclined as native-born Americans. The DHS/DOJ report reveals no new information about incarcerations on the federal level, does not provide evidence for a higher nation-wide illegal immigrant incarceration rate, nor does it support the administration’s plea for more border security.”
Meanwhile, over at the American Immigration Council (“AIC”), another pro-immigrant group, Walter Ewing, although not mentioning the DOJ report specifically, asserts that here is no basis for the “nativists” claim that crimes by migrants are a crisis:
Ewing writes in AIC’s Immigration Impact blog:
“Social scientists have concluded that immigrants are far less likely than the native-born to commit serious criminal offenses or end up behind bars. More than one hundred years of research has firmly established this fact. Yet nativists still claim that undocumented immigrants pose a threat to public safety and national security.
They do this in two ways.
First, in the nativist mindset, since undocumented immigrants have broken a law by coming to or staying in the United States without authorization, they are all “criminals”—and criminals are dangerous. Therefore, according to this line of reasoning, undocumented immigrants must be dangerous criminals.
Second, since some undocumented immigrants are in fact serious criminals, nativists argue that we would have fewer criminals in the United States if we had fewer undocumented immigrants. Yet the same reasoning applies to any social group. If we had fewer white people, or short people, or blonds in this country, then there would be fewer serious criminals as well since some criminals are white, and some are short, and some are blond. Missing from this argument is the fact that immigrants commit crimes at a much lower rate than the native-born.
An example of the nativist line of reasoning comes from a story on Frontpage Magazine by retired Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) agent Michael Cutler. The story throws together a collection of disembodied incarceration statistics with inflammatory political rhetoric. Cutler also argues, without citing a primary source, that undocumented immigrants are responsible for nearly a third of all murders in the country.
While Cutler can’t credibly back up his claims, there is no shortage of credible researchers who have demonstrated the absence of any relationship between high rates of immigration and high crime rates. In just the past three years, three compelling studies have been added to the pile of evidence which has been growing for decades concerning the lack of any connection between immigration and crime.
A study released in 2017 concluded that “undocumented immigration was significantly associated with reductions in drug arrests, drug overdose deaths, and DUI arrests” between 1990 and 2014. The study “provides evidence that undocumented immigration has not increased the prevalence of drug or alcohol problems, but may be associated with reductions in these public health concerns.”
Another recent study found no relationship between undocumented immigration and rates of violent crime. The authors note that their findings undermine what they call the “Trump Hypothesis,” a notion which holds that undocumented immigration is fueling “violent and drug-related crime in the United States” as declared by President Trump’s 2015 presidential campaign announcement.
Finally, a 2014 study found that “immigrants to the United States are less likely to engage in violent or nonviolent antisocial behaviors than native-born Americans.” Notably, native-born Americans were approximately four times more likely to report violent behavior than Asian and African immigrants and three times more likely than immigrants from Latin America.”
Cutler’s piece ignores this evidence and resorts to simplistic rhetoric; labeling any immigrant in prison for any offense a “criminal alien” and accusing them of terrorizing the American people. But it is immigrants—particularly the undocumented—who risk being terrorized by nativists in their zeal to stereotype and scapegoat immigrants as the source of every ill that afflicts the United States.
The former INS agent characterizes the statistics in his story as “the stunning numbers the Left cannot refute.” However, it is Cutler who seemingly can’t refute the body of research which thoroughly discredits his arguments.”
Suffice it to say that the grandiose claims about the DOJ report’s findings made by Sessions and others in the Administration appear problematic, at best.