Lies, Damned Lies and Immigrant Crime

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When discussing political rhetoric in the United States media commentators often use terms like “spin” and “misstatement” to characterize untruths told for a rhetorical purpose when they bother to comment on untruths at all. These are very kind characterizations of untruths told by government officials and television talking heads that have fact checkers and research staffs ostensibly working with them to prevent such prevarications. The actual term which is appropriate is a lie. A lie is simply “a false statement deliberately presented as being true; a falsehood” or “something meant to deceive or give a wrong impression.”

There is no more malicious, deceitful, or ignominious lie in American politics than the claim that immigrants, and more specifically undocumented immigrants, are somehow related to an increased threat of crime in the United States. The evidence on immigrant crime is clear with no room for “spin.” Immigrants, and specifically undocumented immigrants, have the lowest crime rates in the United States. For example:

  • First generation immigrants (people born outside of U.S. borders) are 45% less likely to commit a violent crime than other Americans.
  • Immigrants have the lowest rates of incarceration for criminal conviction of any group in American society.
  • In the demographic group with the highest probability of criminality, men between the ages of 18 and 40, U.S. born citizens are 10 times more likely than foreign-born immigrants to commit a crime.
  • According to the U.S. Department of Justice, immigrants maintain low crime rates even when faced with adverse social conditions such as low income and low levels of education. This is particularly true of Mexican, Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants.
  • Looking at incarceration rates since 1980 it is clear that immigrants have incarceration rates that are merely one-fifth of the rates of “native” born Americans. In fact, newly arrived immigrants are the least likely social group in the U.S. to be involved in crime.
  • A study conducted by researchers from Harvard University and the University of Michigan, found that immigrants committed fewer crimes than native-born citizens, and that having a greater proportion of immigrants in a neighborhood was associated with lower rates of crime.

The facts on immigrants and crime are absolutely clear and irrefutable. They come from research following the scientific method and are refereed by peer reviewers, not Tea-Party xenophobes. But facts play little role in the portraits of an immigrant crime wave painted by politicians and Fox network “commentators.” For example:

Lou Dobbs, the self-appointed defender of the American middle-class, makes the following claim: “just about a third of the prison population in this country is estimated to be illegal aliens.” No Lou immigrants make up 5.9% of the prison population.

Dobbs also claimed that “when we have borders that are unprotected, when criminal illegal aliens are sent across the border, deported and are returning and then murdering police officers. You’re talking about an unfunded mandate. And that unfunded mandate is laying straight forwardly on the taxpayers’ back in this country, U.S. citizens who are paying for it all, the high cost of medical care, social services, crime prevention and prosecution, of course as well.” As the facts clearly show Dobbs is long on hyperbole and short on facts.

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer is also quick to present her impressions as truth even when the facts contradict her: “I believe today, under the circumstances that we’re facing, that the majority of the illegal trespassers that are coming into the state of Arizona are under the direction and control of organized drug cartels and they are bringing drugs in.” Her “spin” is outdone by even more outrageous lies from Iowa Republican congressman Steve King: “For everyone who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds—and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’ve been hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.” So Governor Brewer and Congressman King how do you explain the fact that immigrants are far less likely than those born in the U.S. to commit crime, and that immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala are even less likely to engage in crime?

And of course there is the king of misstatement and spin, Fox News’ bobble-head Bill O’Reilly, who regularly rants on the subject of immigration and crime. O’Reilly supported Arizona’s draconian anti-immigrant legislation (SB 1070) by pointing to “an exploding crime rate” in the state. He doubled down saying that Arizona “overrun with crime and everything else and people getting slaughtered on their ranches. I mean, it’s insane.” Well, Bill crime is going down in Arizona and as we have seen immigrants commit less crime than the population at large. In fact the Wall Street Journal (5/25/2010) correctly points out that the violent crime rate “plunged 16.6 percent in Phoenix, despite a perception of rising crime that has fueled an immigration backlash.” So, who is insane, Bill?

But even the Wall Street Journal can’t stop O’Reilly’s racist rants. In one week the “mouth that lied” spouted out the following:

  • “The Arizona authorities say we’re desperate. We don’t have the money. Our crime problem is through the roof. Phoenix is one of the most dangerous cities in the country. We got to do something.”
  • “So the state of Arizona faced with an overwhelming crime problem, social chaos and a bankrupt treasury had to do something.”
  • “Arizona’s bankrupt. The crime’s through the roof. Phoenix is the kidnapping capital of the United States now.”
  • “Arizona’s already won the war of public opinion…. Americans understand, look, here’s a state where the federal government will not do its job. The state has 500,000 illegal aliens. It’s bankrupt. Phoenix is the kidnapping capital of the United States. Crime is through the roof. Drugs are coming across the border all the time. So what do you expect Arizona to do?”

Oh dear! Poor Phoenix! But wait! FBI data show that Phoenix is currently showing the lowest crime rate in 20 years and a decrease in violent crime of 18% since 2008. As Mayor Phil Gordon told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, “crime is actually down, in every category.”

So, Governor Brewer, Representative King, and bobble heads Lou Dobbs and Bill O’Reilly are lying. But, when you are lying about a group defined by race or ethnicity, that becomes a different kind of lie. That’s a racist lie. That’s the kind of lie promulgated by former Mississippi Governors Theodore Gilmore Bilbo and Ross Barnett; former Alabama Governor George Wallace; and former vice-president and South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun, a man Andrew Jackson said he should have “hanged on the White House lawn.” A racist lie is a different kind of lie, a very dangerous lie.

Gary Potter, PhD
Professor, School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University

Sources:

Migration Policy Institute. 2007. Actual Immigration to the United States; The Real Numbers. (May).

Public Policy Institute of California. 2008. Crime, Corrections, and California: What Does Immigration Have to Do with It? Sacramento.

Sampson, R. 2008. Rethinking crime and immigration. Contexts, 7, 1.

Sutherland Institute. 2009. Utah Citizens and Illegal Immigrants: Side-by-Side. Salt Lake City: Sutherland Institute.

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