Last week, the Department of Justice released a report showing that, in 2018, a whopping “64% of all federal arrests were of non-U.S. citizens”, compared to data from 1998 showing a comparative figure of 37%.
Right-wing grifters, assemble!
The release has since received sweeping coverage in outlets sympathetic to the President’s immigration views.
Lou Dobbs’ show on Fox Business, for instance, hosted Mark Morgan, acting director of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, who suggested the numbers constitute “a national security crisis.”
Dobbs also claimed that the report “highlights the rise of crimes by non-U.S. citizens in this country.”
Some much needed clarity
Despite the hysteria, however, the report includes an important qualifying statement: “Across 20 years, 95% of the increase in federal arrests was due to immigration crimes.”
In other words, whilst arrests of non-US citizens may have increased over the last 20 years, the arrests in question are far more likely to be immigration-related – a fact which problematizes both Morgan and Dobbs’s depictions of a “security crisis”.
Good faith for a bad argument
Perhaps, to act in good faith, we should assume that the pair didn’t mean to imply that noncitizens are committing more serious crimes nowadays. Maybe they were indeed referring solely to a rise in immigration crimes.
However, even this would be a grave misinterpretation of the report.
The report states that the rate of illegal immigration was much higher in 1998 than it was in 2018, and, in 1998, noncitizens also comprised a much lower share of federal arrests.
In other words, despite noncitizens making up a much higher overall percentage of federal arrests today, immigration crimes were far more prevalent in 1998 than they are now.
So, whilst the headline figures of 64% and 37% may indicate that immigrants are committing more immigration crimes today than 20 years ago, this is not the case; the DoJ report measures arrests only, not crimes committed.
Getting your priorities right
The rise in arrests observed, then, is a natural result of the Trump administration’s choice to crack down on immigration crimes—i.e. illegal border crossings—with criminal law enforcement.
It is this enforcement decision, not higher levels of crimes, driving these figures.
Another flawed narrative
A recent op-ed in the Daily Caller also highlights the prevalence of flawed narratives surrounding the report.
Whilst acknowledging that the vast majority of the reported rise in arrests come from immigration crimes, the author emphasizes the figure showing that noncitizens account for 15% of federal arrests for non-immigration crimes — including drug crimes, property crimes, and fraud — despite comprising only 7% of the population.
From this, the author triumphantly concludes: “Put simply, the report shows unequivocally that noncitizens commit crimes at significantly higher rates than citizens, just as President Trump has repeatedly pointed out.”
Put simply, the report doesn’t come close to showing that.
Federal arrests don’t tell us much
Federal arrests are not nationally representative in the way claimed by the author for two reasons.
First, as noted above, they reflect enforcement priorities. If the federal government shifts its focus towards arresting perpetrators of immigration crimes and noncitizens, it is inevitable that the latter will be more disproportionately represented in some other categories of crimes.
Second, and more importantly, federal arrests account for only 1.5% of all arrests nationwide. As any criminal justice researcher would be quick to point out, the vast majority of criminal justice activity happens at the state level.
So, to understand conclusively whether noncitizens are more likely to commit serious crimes than citizens, we would have to look at crime data on the state level – something this report does not cover.
What the right data tells us
However, this begs the question: what does noncitizen criminality actually look like at the state level?
A new study from the Cato Institute looks at data from Texas and finds that immigrants who entered the country illegally “were over 47% less likely to be convicted of a crime than native-born Americans.”
This study builds on research based on data from 2015 that showed significantly lower arrest and conviction rates for these immigrants than for native-born Texans.
Similarly, an earlier Cato study that used national figures found that immigrants who had entered this country illegally had lower incarceration rates than native-born citizens.
A step further
We can also take our analysis a step further and look at more methodologically creative research.
Another study showed that immigrants who had illegally entered the United States even tend to reduce violent crime in places where they settle, not increase them.
All of these studies are part of a broader consensus among researchers that immigrants who illegally crossed the border are not more crime-prone than natives, and that immigration tends to bring down crime rates, not increase them.
What we know, and what the DoJ report doesn’t tell us
In short, the only revelation from the Government’s recent report on federal arrests is that the Trump administration is putting more resources into immigration crimes than previous administrations.
It does not show that more people are committing immigration crimes than in previous years, or that noncitizens are public safety or “national security” threats.
In fact, every credible look at the evidence suggests that immigrants, both legal and illegal, commit crimes at lower rates than natives do.
Immigration hawks such as Dobbs, Morgan, and the President should take a look at these facts before they engage in such misrepresentative fear-mongering.
Image credit: Chess Ocampo