Illegal Immigrants and Crime

February 7, 2018

Peter Kirsanow

Over at Reason, Alex Nowrasteh has taken issue with a Corner post in which I used SCAAP reimbursement figures (a program which reimburses states and localities for some of the cost of incarcerating illegal aliens and suspected illegal aliens) to do some calculations about illegal aliens’ involvement in crime. Before I address his objections, a few points:

Illegal-immigrant crime calculations conveniently and invariably steal a base by leaving out the millions of crimes committed by illegal immigrants related to procuring fraudulent social security numbers, obtaining false drivers’ licenses, using fraudulent green cards, and improperly accessing public benefits.

My SCAAP-extrapolated crime figures actually are lower than those calculated by John Lott. Using Arizona Department of Corrections data spanning 1985–2017, Lott calculates that illegal immigrants in Arizona aged 18-35, for example, are 250 percent more likely to commit crimes than young U.S. citizens. Further, such illegal immigrants commit more serious crimes — such as murder, robbery, and sexual assault.

Illegal-immigrant crime data, regardless of source, likely understate crimes committed by illegal aliens. That’s because illegal-immigrant victims are less likely to report crime, and even if crimes are reported, illegal immigrants are less likely to appear as witnesses leading to conviction.

Even if illegal immigrants didn’t commit crimes at a higher rate than U.S. citizens, they nonetheless commit crimes — each one of which is a crime that shouldn’t have been committed in the U.S.

It’s peculiar that government agencies, notorious for aggregating the most obscure statistics imaginable, do not tabulate crime data for illegal aliens. Why do you think that’s the case?

Nowrasteh says I err by counting criminal-alien incarcerations as representing an individual alien, when individual aliens could be incarcerated multiple times. That’s true, but SCAAP only reimburses states and localities for inmates who “(1) had at least one felony or two misdemeanor convictions for violations of state or local law; and (2) were incarcerated for at least four consecutive days during the reporting period.” Some individuals probably are incarcerated for more than one four-day stint in the course of a year, but it’s likely that the justice system will hold onto someone for a while after he’s incarcerated for the third time in nine months.

Nowrasteh states that the 2008 American Community Survey data says there were only 156,329 non-citizens incarcerated in federal, state, and local facilities, and thus it’s impossible that the 296,959 SCAAP incarcerations represent individuals. I’m willing to concede that there may be some individuals who account for more than one SCAAP incarceration. But I’m skeptical that survey data are more reliable than the SCAAP data. Nowrasteh writes elsewhere that the ACS data are reliable “because it’s ordinarily collected by or under the supervision of correctional institution administrators.” But incarcerated foreign nationals have a particular incentive to conceal their citizenship status. It’s unlikely that the process followed by correctional-institution administrators is much more thorough than that followed by DOJ and ICE in calculating SCAAP reimbursement. GAO explains:

State and local entities wishing to get reimbursed for incarcerating eligible criminal aliens submit identification data each year, such as the individual alien’s name, and date and country of birth to DOJ by means of a web based system. DOJ then sends this data to ICE, which researches DHS databases to try to determine the individual’s immigration or citizenship status. For each individual name submitted, ICE reports to DOJ that it (1) verified the individual was illegally in the United States at the time of incarceration (called SCAAP illegal aliens), (2) lacked documentation to confirm an individual’s immigration status (called SCAAP unknown aliens), or (3) verified that the individual was an alien legally in the United States or a United States citizen and therefore not eligible for reimbursement under SCAAP. According to ICE officials, some of the unknown aliens may be in the United States illegally but have not come into contact with DHS authorities, which is why ICE could not verify their immigration status.

Furthermore, DOJ is aware that not every suspected criminal alien is in fact an alien, which is why these individuals are classified as “SCAAP unknown aliens,” and state and local governments receive reduced reimbursement.

Finally, Nowrasteh briefly discusses the number of illegal aliens (85) incarcerated for homicide in federal prisons. He states that most murders are prosecuted at the state and local level. It’s unlikely for someone to be incarcerated for two separate murders twice in the same year. Thus, we probably can agree that when GAO reported the number of illegal aliens incarcerated for murder in Arizona, Texas, California, New York, and Florida, that’s the actual number of illegal aliens incarcerated for murder in those states. And that means, contra Nowrasteh’s statement that I’m comparing apples to oranges, I’m actually comparing apples to apples. And in Arizona, California, and New York, illegal aliens are convicted of homicide at dramatically higher rates than are native-born citizens and legal residents.