Do Unauthorized Immigrants Commit a Lot of Crime?
Plus: Other immigration claims examined.
By Lawrence M. Eppard
On his television show recently on Fox News, host Tucker Carlson was discussing the unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine, or as he called it, Vladimir Putin’s “border dispute” with Ukraine (it is in fact an invasion and violation of international law, not a “border dispute,” and it is likely that war crimes are occurring).
That comment certainly caught my ear, but it was not the only one.
During his show Carlson also lamented that:
“Biden has pledged to defend Ukraine’s borders even as he opens our borders to the world. That’s how it works: invading America is called ‘equity,’ invading Ukraine is a war crime.”
He went on to say that American leaders “are allowing your country to become polluted and overrun.”
None of this is at all new for Carlson. He frequently claims that immigrants are overrunning the U.S., that liberal political leaders want to replace White voters with non-White ones, and that unauthorized immigrants commit a lot of crime.
This last claim in particular piques my interest as a scholar of economic and racial inequalities. No matter how many times scholars like me and (more important and well-known) others debunk this claim, it stubbornly lives on in the public and political discourse and plays a major role in how many Americans think about immigration.
Carlson is not alone in spreading this disinformation of course. Former President Donald Trump was one of the most high-profile disseminators of this myth, making it a central theme of his campaign and presidency. You’ll remember that he kicked off his presidential campaign in June 2015 with this claim:
“When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. . . They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists.”
He followed that up in a television interview the next month by saying:
“I’m talking not about Mexico, I’m talking about illegal immigration. And it has to be stopped. . . It’s killing our country. . . People are pouring over the borders. Pouring. . . By the way, they come from the Middle East. We don’t even know where they come from. . . If you look at the statistics on rape, on crime, on everything, coming in illegally into this country, they're mind-boggling. . . All I’m doing is telling the truth.”
He would return to this theme again and again throughout his presidency: “Thanks to Democrat immigration policies, innocent Americans in all 50 states are being brutalized and murdered by illegal alien criminals.”
These claims about immigrants and crime are demonstrably false and they massively distort what should be a factual, honest, and good faith policy debate.
What the data tell us
Unauthorized immigrants, like native-born Americans, do indeed commit crimes. But looking at all of the best data available to us, the weight of the evidence suggests that they do not commit crimes at a higher rate than native-born Americans.
While a number of high-quality studies exist, some of the best and most frequently cited studies come from Michael Light at the University of Wisconsin and Alex Nowrasteh at the Cato Institute.
These studies not only reject the notion that immigrants are more criminally oriented than native-born Americans, but reveal the opposite to be true: across the major crime categories, native-born Americans as a group have higher crime rates than unauthorized immigrants.
Michael Light and his colleagues’ research, for example, revealed that compared to unauthorized immigrants, native-born Americans were about 2.2 times more likely to be arrested for violent crimes, about 4.3 times more likely to be arrested for property crimes, about 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for drug violations, and about 1.8 times more likely to be arrested for traffic violations (see Figure 1 below).
On detailed measures of violent and property crimes, native-born Americans were more likely than unauthorized immigrants to be arrested for homicide (2.5 times), assault (2.1 times), robbery (5.6 times), and sexual assault (1.6 times) (see Figure 2 below).
Figure 1. Felony Arrest Rates by Crime Types.
Figure 2. Felony Arrest Rates by Detailed Offense Categories.
There was not a single crime category where unauthorized immigrants had a higher crime rate than native-born Americans. As Light and his coauthors explained in their article:
“undocumented immigrants have substantially lower rates of crime compared to both native U.S. citizens and legal immigrants. . . Debates about undocumented immigration will no doubt continue, but they should do so informed by the available evidence. The results presented here significantly undermine the claims that undocumented immigrants pose a unique criminal risk. In fact, our results suggest that undocumented immigrants pose substantially less criminal risk than native U.S. citizens. . . undocumented immigrants are driven by economic and educational opportunities for themselves and their families, and the decision to migrate necessarily requires a considerable amount of motivation and planning. As such, undocumented immigrants may be selected on qualities such as motivation to work and ambition to achieve, attributes that are unlikely to predispose them toward criminality. . . undocumented immigrants have strong incentives to avoid criminal involvement for fear of detection and deportation.”
In a different study with another colleague, Light examined the issue differently. Rather than look at the criminal arrest rates of different groups, he instead looked at whether the size of unauthorized immigrant populations living in particular areas was associated with crime rates there. His findings revealed a strong negative correlation (-0.65) between unauthorized immigrant populations and violent crime across the U.S. The higher the proportion of unauthorized immigrants in a community, the lower the violent crime rate. In other words: unauthorized immigration does not increase violence (see Figure 3 below).
Figure 3. Association between Proportion of Population Unauthorized Immigrant and Violent Crime across the U.S.
We hear about horrible individual cases, such as the killing of Kate Steinle in San Francisco by an unauthorized immigrant in 2015, but those are tragic exceptions. Politicians and partisan commentators like to use these awful cases to magnify their claims that immigrants are dangerous criminals, but they are just exploiting tragedy for political gain.
Trump and Carlson and their allies also like to insinuate that terrorists are pouring over the southern border in order to murder Americans. The weight of the evidence again suggests this is not true.
Table 1 below summarizes Cato Institute scholar Alex Nowrasteh’s analysis of foreign-born terrorism in the U.S. from 1975-2017. Unauthorized immigrants represented about 5% of all terrorists in his analysis. Of the over 3,000 murders and over 17,000 injuries that occurred at the hands of foreign-born terrorists over that time period, zero could be attributed to an unauthorized immigrant.
Table 1. Foreign-Born Terrorist Murders and Injuries, 1975-2017.
People like Trump and Carlson should (and probably do) know better—we’ve had access to data like these for years. The question is why they continue to make these claims in the face of a significant amount of disconfirming evidence.
There is no “right” or “wrong” answer to the question of how to structure our immigration system. Nothing that I have discussed in this piece tells us anything about what should be done about unauthorized immigration or how we should feel about it. In a constitutional republic like the U.S., public policies depend upon the preferences of voters and their elected representatives.
But while red and blue Americans may differ on what should be done regarding immigration, we should not differ in our desire for these decisions to be based on facts. We need to embrace facts and shun misinformation and disinformation in order to craft public policies that will solve real problems. If we all rely on well-sourced data, groups with different opinions can come together to find common ground and create successful policy.
Other myths about immigration. . .
Claim: Unlike immigrants of the past, today’s immigrants refuse to learn English.
What do the data tell us?
Claim: Most unauthorized immigrants arrive by crossing the southern border.
What do the data tell us?
Data show that most unauthorized immigrants in recent years are arriving via legal means (such as with a legal visa by plane or ship) and then failing to leave when required (see here and here and here). This does not mean we should ignore the southern border. An overemphasis on that, however, without much-needed reforms elsewhere, would be an inadequate approach.
Claim: Immigration negatively impacts the American economy.
What do the data tell us?
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