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The Illusion of Immigrant Criminality: Getting the Numbers Wrong

Immigrants aren’t a crime problem. “The foreign-born commit considerably fewer crimes than the native-born,” as President Herbert Hoover’s National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement concluded in 1931 (National Lawyers Guild Quarterly, 10/39; Immigration Policy Center, Spring/07). While noncitizens now make

up more than 8 percent of the U.S. population, the available evidence indicates that they account for no more than 6 or 7 percent of the people incarcerated for crimes in the United States, less than 170,000 of the 2.3 million prisoners currently in our federal, state and local penal systems—not including some 30,000 immigrants in administrative detention on any given day awaiting deportation. (Politics of Immigration, 4/2/08, 5/7/08).

Why, then, do so many people believe in the myth of immigrant criminality?

One reason is the mainstream media’s habit of giving inflated estimates for the number of immigrants in prison. Ten percent of U.S. prisoners are “immigrant criminals eligible for deportation,” the New York Times told us (3/28/08), citing a “top federal immigration official.” An Indiana University economist has calculated that undocumented immigrants “commit 21 percent of all crime in the United States, costing the country more than $84 billion,” reported (2/27/08). Our prisons are “bulging” with immigrants, correspondent Christine Romans said on CNN’s Lou Dobbs Tonight (4/1/06); they account for 30 percent of all federal prisoners, she added.

These numbers simply don’t hold up under scrutiny. The 10 percent number in the New York Times came from a March 27, 2008 interview reporter Julia Preston did with Julie L. Myers, assistant secretary of Homeland Security for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Myers put the number of deportable convicts now behind bars nationwide at 304,000 or more, Preston reported, noting that this is the “first official estimate” for these prisoners. Myers told Preston that deportable convicts would be about 10 percent of the overall prison population for the next few years.

Myers’ 304,000 figure is almost twice the number we get by extrapolating from published government reports. It doesn’t even match the 10 percent figure Myers gave in the same interview: One-tenth of the current prison population would be about 230,000, not 304,000.

The number also doesn’t seem to match ICE’s own handouts from the next day, March 28, when the agency said it “estimates that about 300,000 to 450,000 criminal aliens who are potentially removable are detained each year in federal, state and local prisons and jails.” The number of noncitizens held in U.S. prisons on criminal charges during the course of “each year” would of course be much larger than the number of these prisoners behind bars on any one day, the number that Myers seems to be giving in the Times article. (The government usually gives statistics for prison populations for a specific day, such as June 30 or December 31.)
A month’s efforts failed to get the ICE press office to explain how the agency came up with these estimates.

Of course, the government itself can influence the statistics through its policies, and right now immigration and Justice Department personnel are working overtime to increase the number of “criminal aliens.” Under a program called “Opera-tion Streamline,” the government has been bringing criminal charges for misdemeanor immigration offenses that it used to treat as civil violations; the result is a surge of criminal immigration convictions that reached 9,350 in March 2008. At this rate, the number of immigrant convicts would increase by more than 100,000 for the year. But the typical sentence is just one month, so the increase at any given time would be less than 10,000 prisoners--a fraction of a percent of the overall U.S. prison population (New York Times, 6/18/08; Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, 6/17/08).

The case is simpler with Time’s 21 percent figure: It’s wrong, and it’s been abandoned by the person who came up with it. In an otherwise excellent report on recent studies indicating that “increased immigration makes the United States safer,” reporter Kathleen Kingsbury provided “balance” by citing dubious calculations from a June 2007 blog by Indiana University professor Eric Rasmusen (6/29/07) that claimed to show that low crime rates for authorized immigrants (who are “by definition unusually law-abiding,” wrote Rasmusen) mask extraordinarily high crime rates for undocumented immi-grants. After being shown that he’d made a series of mistakes in handling the statistics, Rasmusen posted a correction (4/30/08) saying that a more accurate estimate would be 6.1 percent. Time, however, failed to respond to three requests to run a clarification noting that Rasmusen had withdrawn his earlier numbers.

While Preston and Kingsbury failed to question doubtful numbers others gave them, the Lou Dobbs program distorted federal prison statistics to imply that immigrants are disproportionately criminal.

It is true that a large percentage of federal prisoners are noncitizens (although the current figure is 25 to 26 percent, not 30 percent, as Dobbs’ program claimed—4/1/06). But Dobbs and his staff had to know that this statistic doesn’t mean immigrants are an important factor in crime.
The federal prison population is less than 10 percent of the national total, and federal prisoners are far less likely than state prisoners to be incarcerated for violent crimes. Noncitizens are overrepre-sented in the federal system because of the sorts of crimes--such as cross-border smuggling and immigration offenses--that fall within federal jurisdiction. More than 10 percent of the 200,000 federal convicts are imprisoned for immigration offenses (Politics of Immigration, 5/7/08).

Dobbs has had several chances to correct the misrepresentation. New York Times business columnist David Leon-hardt pointed it out on May 30, 2007. Instead of retracting the misleading number, Dobbs responded angrily (CNN, 5/30/07) that he was being attacked by “the left wing.” He remained unapologetic when he was confronted over his statis-tical games on the Democracy Now! radio program on December 4, 2007. Hosts Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez played clips of Dobbs magnifying his original distortion by saying that one-third of all prisoners were undocumented immi-grants. He finally conceded that he “misspoke.”

The Lou Dobbs show--which highlighted the alleged connection between undocumented workers and crime in a whopping 94 episodes in 2007 (Media Matters, 5/21/08)--continues its policy of “misspeaking” about prison statistics. On the March 28, 2008 program, CNN correspondent Louise Schiavone seemed to go out of her way to muddle a report on ICE’s already dubious numbers for deportable immigrants in prison. The agency “believes that up to 450,000 criminal aliens, both legal and illegal, will be behind bars in the U.S. and in queue for deportation at any one time this year,” Schiavone said. As noted before, when ICE cited its “300,000 to 450,000” figures, the agency was referring to the number of noncitizens held in U.S. prisons over the course of each year--not on any given day.

Erroneous numbers from the mainstream media on immigrant prisoners are quickly circulated across the Internet, providing ammunition for people who want to believe that a wave of foreign criminals is invading the country. Lou Dobbs Tonight is a favorite source for misinformation among anti-immigrant groups, but more respectable media are also used for this purpose.

Preston’s article on the 304,000 deportable inmates was quickly picked up by websites with names like (3/28/08) and (3/29/08), and was run under headlines like “Our Dumb A$$ed Politicians Do It Again” (Gather Community Press, 3/29/08).

In an environment “where Latinos are racially profiled and immigrants are dehumanized and persecuted as ‘illegals’ and ‘criminal aliens,’“ writes Justin Akers Chacon, co-author, with Mike Davis, of No One Is Illegal, “the hate-filled and the weak-minded will rally to the cause in their own violent way.” He notes that attacks on Latinos have risen “in tandem with the intensification of the immigration debate,” rising 35 percent between 2003 and 2006 (Ventura County Star, 3/27/08). Fictitious numbers on immigrant crime in the media have undoubtedly done their part in fueling these real crimes.

David L. Wilson is co-author, with Jane Guskin, of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers (Monthly Review Press). Information is available at This article originally appeared in FAIR and is reprinted with permission.

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