The Facts about Immigration and Crime

According to a recent Rasmussen Poll, 68 percent of likely US voters reported that illegal immigration is a “serious” problem, and 43 percent consider it a “very serious” problem. That isn’t surprising.

From the moment he launched his campaign, Donald Trump has belabored how awful and destructive illegal immigration is for the country. He  proclaimed then that Mexican immigrants are “bringing drugs…they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists.” The insults have kept coming even after he entered the Oval Office.

And the tragic and brutal murder of the beautiful Mollie Tibbetts, a 20-year-old student at the University of Iowa, by an illegal Mexican immigrant gave Trump even more ammunition.

This is hardly the first time that Trump has highlighted crimes committed by specific illegal immigrants. During his last State of the Union address he showcased the parents of victims killed by illegal immigrants.

We can all agree that these murders are horrible, regardless of who commits them: citizens or immigrants, legal or illegal. But by the way President Trump and some right-wing media outlets spin it, one would think that illegal immigrants commit far more violent crimes than anyone else. Just as progressive politicians and pundits lay the blame for every gun death at the feet of all gun owners—with zero regard for the millions of peaceful American gun owners—right wingers today blame every murder committed by an illegal on all illegals, no matter how peaceful and hardworking.

Mr. Trump noted after Ms. Tibbetts’ death, “You heard about today, with the illegal alien coming in from, very sadly, from Mexico, and you saw what happened to that incredible, beautiful young woman.” And he added later, “The immigration laws are such a disgrace." Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state running for governor as a Republican said after Tibbetts' death: "Every crime committed by an illegal alien is a crime that should never have occurred and would never have occurred if the illegal alien were not in our country."

And if you watch Fox News, I wouldn’t blame you for believing that undocumented immigrants and the immigration statutes that allow them in are an existential threat to the republic and that your children won’t be safe unless all such immigrants are kicked out. It might even make you sympathetic the Trump administration’s policy of separating border parents from their children, a policy which Reason Foundation Senior Analyst Shikha Dalmia rightfully described as neither just or humane.

But would stopping illegal immigration - even if doing so were easy (which it is not) - actually reduce crime rates in America? No.

Cause of Crime

Most credible  research shows that immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, commit fewer crimes, including violent crimes, than do native-born Americans. Cato Institute’s Alex Nowratesh compared crimes rates of immigrants to those of the native born in Texas and found that in 2016, “the homicide conviction rate for native-born Americans in Texas was 3.2 per 100,000 natives while it was 1.8 per 100,000 illegal immigrants and 0.9 per 100,000 legal immigrants.” 

That means that for every 746 native-born Americans convicted of homicide in Texas, 32 undocumented immigrants and 28 legal immigrants were found guilty of similar crimes. Let these numbers sink in!

Facts such as these are why policy-making by anecdotes is unwise. But if you insist on anecdotes, I have anecdotes. You won’t hear this on Fox, but for every undocumented immigrant who commits a crime, one or more perform heroic acts. The Boston Globe lists a few:

·       William Ramirez, a father of two from Colombia, was on his way to his maintenance job at a boatyard when he witnessed a man trying to gun down a Miami police officer. Ramirez drove his van into the line of fire, shielding the policeman from the shooter and pulling him to safety.

·       Antonio Diaz Chacon, an unauthorized Mexican immigrant in Albuquerque, saw a young girl being abducted off the street; he unhesitatingly pursued the kidnapper to rescue the child.

·       Jesus Manuel Cordova, saved the life of a nine-year-old boy stranded in the Arizona desert. The boy’s mother had died in a car crash, leaving the child helpless — until he was discovered by Cordova. Cordova stayed with the boy, keeping watch for hours until someone eventually found them and contacted the authorities.

No one would buy it if immigration advocates used these positive anecdotes to declare the goodness of the entire undocumented population. They would rightly demand data and statistics. I wish the anti-immigration side would do the same.

Making Things Up

In the same way that I understand that people get particularly angry when prisoners on parole commit a crime, I understand how people can be so emotional about a crime committee by someone who legally shouldn’t be in the country. David French over at National Review has a good piece on this issue. That being said, emotions such as these supply no good excuse for making things up or for the right's hysterical demonization of immigrants.

In addition, the answer to this problem isn’t to kick everyone out, lock the door and throw away the key as Mr. Trump and his ilk suggest. The solution is serious immigration reform, by which I mean making it radically easier for low-skilled immigrants to come to our country legally so they can continue blessing us with their labor and productivity.

Right now, there are few legal avenues for low-skilled immigrants to work and live in the United States. And the avenues that do exist are too bureaucratic to be usable. So when people tell you they want undocumented immigrants who currently reside in the U.S. – and who clean our homes, mow our lawns, take care of our children and serve us at restaurants -– to come legally, they demonstrate their utter ignorance. There is often no such option for these immigrants.

Indeed, if we created usable guest-worker programs for low-skilled immigrants, we’d be able to control our borders without building an expensive wall (which would be useless anyway since so many illegal immigrants came here legally and just overstay their legal welcome).

All the Bolivians and Mexicans who just want to come here and work their backsides off to feed their families would be able to do so legally, making it much easier to snag the truly bad hombres trying to smuggle drugs or contraband across the border illegally. The already low crime rate of undocumented immigrants would drop even further.

I close with some good news. As it turns out, Trump’s – and Fox News’ – constant anti-illegal bashing might have actually decreased the public’s antipathy toward illegals.

Remember that 68 percent of voters who today see illegal immigration as a serious problem? That’s 12 percent less than in 2015. Trump’s tirade may well be making affection for undocumented immigrants great again.

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Veronique de Rugy

AIER Senior Fellow Veronique de Rugy is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a nationally syndicated columnist. Her primary research interests include the US economy, the federal budget, homeland security, taxation, tax competition, and financial privacy.