How True Are Trump’s Claims About Immigrants and Crime?

Looking at the evidence behind reality tv star's claims.

You have all heard Donald Trump’s recent speeches attacking immigrants as criminals. I won’t reiterate them here. I did want to bring to your attention research from the fact checking outfit Politifact on his claims. Here is what they found about his baseline statement tying immigrants to crime:

We wondered if Trump was right that there are “hundreds of thousands” of illegal immigrants in the nation’s state and federal prisons. We polled experts and asked government agencies and found no data that speaks to this claim conclusively.

“The basic claim is at best unsustainable or more likely pure fiction. A fact created out of thin air,” said Ramiro Martinez, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University. “There is no substance to the Donald Trump assertion since the data do not exist.”

We reached out to Trump’s staff multiple times and didn’t hear back, though he did cite a recent Department of Homeland Security report.

However, it doesn’t seem like such a report exists.

So the “research” that underlines most of the anti-immigrant claims of immigrants as criminals simply does not exist. Politifact did find some stats on immigrants in prison, but they contradicted Trump’s numbers:

The most recent comprehensive number we could find comes from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In total, there were around 90,000 noncitizens incarcerated in federal and state prison systems at year end in 2013.

But this doesn’t tell us much; the noncitizen group includes both legal and illegal immigrants, and the report does not separate the two. But in any case, we know that there are definitely not “hundreds of thousands” of illegal immigrants in state and federal penitentiaries.

When Politifact turned to actual research, it found that even among those undocumented immigrants in jail, many were there only for immigration violations, not for rape as Trump implied.  Here is what Politifact heard from researchers who know something about the the issue:

The fact that many immigrants are detained for immigration violations awaiting deportation—as opposed to committing some other type of crime—makes incarceration statistics hard to evaluate, said Mary Waters, a sociology professor at Harvard University. The GAO study found that immigration violations were the most frequent offense leading to detention, followed by drug and traffic violations.

We also wanted to note that every expert we polled said there is a consensus among scholars that undocumented immigrants are not more likely to commit crimes than U.S. citizens. They sent quite a few studies our way.

The near certainty that an undocumented immigrant will be removed if convicted of a crime has been found to be a strong crime deterrent among immigrants, according to a paper co-authored by Waters.

Finally, Politifact gave a ruling on Trump’s statement:

Trump said “Hundreds of thousands of (illegal immigrants are) going to state and federal penitentiaries.”

In 2013, there were fewer than 100,000 noncitizens—legal and undocumented—in federal and state prisons. If you add in local jails, it’s quite possible but uncertain that the total number of incarcerated illegal immigrants is above 100,000, though it’s also possible that many of these individuals are held for immigration violations as opposed to other crimes. We just don’t have solid data on this point.

Without any good information to back it up, Trump’s claim falls flat. We rate it Mostly False.

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Patrick Young blogs daily for Long Island Wins. He is the Downstate Advocacy Director of the New York Immigration Coalition and Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra School of Law. He served as the Director of Legal Services and Program at Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) for three decades before retiring in 2019. Pat is also a student of immigration history and the author of The Immigrants' Civil War.

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