Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Illusion of Immigrant Criminality: Getting the Numbers Wrong

by David L. Wilson, Extra!
September/October 2008

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 inmates 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. [...]

Read the full article:

Note: One of the people discussed in the article is Indiana University economist Eric Rasmusen, who was quoted in Time magazine last year as saying that undocumented immigrants commit 21 percent of crimes in the United States. Prof. Rasmusen is back this month with another astonishing claim. He signed on to the Cato Institute's January 28 full-page ad against using job creation and infrastructure maintenance to revive the economy. "Lower tax rates and a reduction in the burden of government are the best ways of using fiscal policy to boost growth," the ad assures us, as if that wasn't what we've been doing for the past 30 years.

For more on Prof. Rasmusen and the immigrant prison population:

1 comment:

The Politics of Immigration: Questions & Answers said...

Hey there,

I'm a loyal reader of FAIR. I love the site and what it does, in my mind there are few things more important than setting the mass media straight on the facts. I was reading your article "The Illusion of Immigrant Criminality" and a question came into my mind about the issue that I was wondering if you could resolve. I'm thinking that there is some sort of process by which aliens are deported after they serve their jail time and targetted by immigration more than the ones that keep their heads low. I really don't know all how this is done, but it occurs to me that that flushing of the criminal populations in one way or another is going to skew the data rather in favor of migrants looking far more law abiding than they really are. I'm not anti-immigrant at all, but this one was gnawing at me a little, and I have a tendency to play devil's advocate.

Michael Allen

Dear Michael Allen,

You are correct about the recidivist effect. A large percentage of incarcerated immigrants are deported when they've served their terms, so they are unlikely to be imprisoned here again. In that sense the incarceration statistics would tend to understate the extent of immigrant criminality.

But of course if we want to bring in factors like the recidivist effect, then we should also note that immigrants tend to be young, male and poor and are generally people of color. Poor young males of color have a disproportionately high rate of incarceration. If you compare immigrant incarceration rates with the rates for similar groups among the native born, you'll find that immigrants are dramatically less likely to be in prison than native-born people with the same characteristics.(See Ruben G. Rumbaut and Walter A. Ewing, "The Myth of Immigrant Criminality and the Paradox of Assimilation," Immigration Policy Center, spring 2007; This is more than enough to offset the recidivist effect.

But I wasn't trying to do a scholarly study weighing all these factors. The studies already exist, and they show that immigrants have relatively low incarceration rates. The point I wanted to make was that despite this scholarly evidence, the media continue to repeat claims that immigrants have a high crime rate--of 10 percent, of 21 percent, of 30 percent. These claims are supposedly based on the prison statistics, but what those statistics actually show is that immigrants make up 6-7 percent or less of the prison population.

Best, David