Immigration photo illustration by Getty Images.
It’s an article of faith in some corners of politics and the media: All those undocumented immigrants crossing the southern border are making crime much worse in the United States.
But new research gives the lie to that assertion. And, some border officials say, continuing to promote it will only lead to another racist massacre like the one that occurred in El Paso two years ago today.
The notion that undocumented immigrants bring crime has a healthy pedigree.
Former President Donald Trump in 2015 said, “They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
Referring to “the staggering number” of “perpetrators of state and federal crimes,” the governors of Texas and Arizona in June appealed to all other states to send their cops to the border to help. Their counterparts in Ohio, Iowa and Nebraska complied. Ohio’s state troopers, at least, are still in Texas.
One problem, though: Peer-reviewed, largely overlooked research published in December shows that undocumented immigrants in Texas likely aren’t part of a crime wave. In fact, they’re much less likely to be arrested for serious crimes than are people born in the United States.
Between 2012 and 2018, U.S.-born people were twice as likely as the undocumented to be arrested for violent crime in Texas and two-and-a-half times as likely to be arrested for drug crimes.
Michael T. Light, a University of Wisconsin criminologist who was the lead author of the study, said there was a longstanding consensus in his field that immigrants tend to be less crime prone. But there wasn’t any research specifically addressing criminality among undocumented immigrants, he said.
“We basically had to wring our hands and hem and haw” when asked about crime by the undocumented, Light said in an interview last week. But then Light and colleagues Jingying He and Jason P. Robey discovered that the Texas Department of Public Safety included immigration status in its crime data.
That created a big opportunity.
“This is an area I’ve been researching for awhile — immigration and crime — so this isn’t an area that’s new to me,” Light said. “What’s new is that we had some really unique and detailed data to answer some basic questions, foundational questions, about what is the relative crime rate of undocumented immigrants relative to other groups.”
What they found was in some ways striking.
While the researchers didn’t expect that undocumented immigrants would commit more violent crime, they suspected the undocumented might commit more property crimes like theft because their economic opportunities can be meagre. Instead, the researchers found that undocumented immigrants committed property crimes at 23% the rate of native-born people and 40% the rate of documented immigrants.
That might show that undocumented immigrants are more concerned with the consequences of arrest than they are motivated to steal, Light said.
“They may be thinking, “I’m going to get deported if I have run-ins with the law,” he said.
The data in the report run directly counter to the statements of many politicians. As governor of Texas, Greg Abbott might be expected to know better, but earlier this summer, he held a press conference saying he would work to complete Trump’s border wall. The embattled Republican said, “What has changed is the carnage that is being caused by the people coming across the border.”
The Austin American-Statesman rated the claim “false,” but that didn’t stop Abbott and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey from claiming in June that this year’s surge to the border created “threats to private property and to the safety of our citizens” as they asked other states to send their cops. Ohio Gov. Mike Dewine was among those who complied.
Texas authorities have for years been making flimsy claims about lawlessness at the border that local law enforcement has angrily denied. But the Department of Public Safety, the director of which is appointed by the governor, seems unlikely to consider the University of Wisconsin study — even though it was done using the department’s own data.
The department’s Texas Border Crime and Other Criminal Activity Report for 2020 sounds ominous, saying, “Border crime impacts all areas of Texas. As the data contained in these pages demonstrates, criminal illegal aliens account for a significant number of serious offenses in Texas.”
But then it seems to give away the game by cautioning that it’s only giving raw numbers and no context.
“The report does not imply that unlawfully present individuals commit crime at a higher rate than citizens, it simply provides a count of the Texas arrests of individuals who are not legally present in the United States,” it says. “These criminals harm Texans and affect our safety and security.”
Light, the criminologist who analyzed DPS data, said such that using raw numbers instead of crime rates can lead to mistaken conclusions.
“Looking at raw numbers even five years ago, you could have concluded that Detroit was safer than New York,” he said. “And having been born in Detroit, (I know) that’s wildly inaccurate.”
One can’t know if Texas public safety officials are trying to create a false impression that undocumented immigrants are dangerous, but raw numbers regarding border crime get a special emphasis — at least on the agency’s website.
The Department of Public Safety didn’t respond last week when asked if it gave undue emphasis to crimes related to the border and why it didn’t post Light’s analysis on its website. But a cursory look at public sources suggests that it — and Ohio officials — might be better advised to focus their attention and resources elsewhere.
Laredo, population 266,000, sits smackdab on the border. It had 12 murders in 2020. Lubbock, population 264,000, is about 300 miles from the border. It had 41 murders last year.
Toledo, Ohio, population 276,000, is about 1,500 miles away. It had 61 — or five times as many murders as Laredo — in 2020.
Yet DeWine’s spokesman last week insisted that the border was an appropriate destination for Ohio law enforcement.
“We are confident in (the Ohio State Highway Patrol’s) ability to provide support services, and that the citizens of Ohio will continue to be provided with the same level of service,” DeWine Press Secretary Dan Tierney said in an email.
Meanwhile, Abbott’s inconsistency toward undocumented immigrants continues.
With coronavirus cases on the rise, the Texas governor last week signed an executive order banning local governments from implementing masking or vaccine requirements to fight the pandemic.
At almost the same time, he signed an order instructing state troopers to stop cars if they suspect they’re carrying migrants who might have the virus and turn them back to Mexico. The Texas Tribune reported Abbott as saying the immigrant order “will reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure in our communities.”
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland sent Abbott a letter declaring the coronavirus order “dangerous and unlawful” and threatened to sue.
Texas state Sen. Cesar Blanco said all the scapegoating has harmed the border’s overwhelmingly Hispanic population in the past and will again if it continues. The El Paso Democrat referred to an Aug. 3, 2019, massacre in which a Dallas-area 21-year-old posted a racist screed and then drove to El Paso, killing 23 and injuring 23 others.
“El Paso is a border town and was recently ranked as the fourth safest large city in America,” Blanco said in an email. “The rhetoric around immigration, including calling immigrants criminals, is dangerous and wrong. As we come up on the second anniversary of the Walmart shooting, El Paso knows firsthand what that rhetoric can drive people to do.”
Marty Schladen has been a reporter for decades, working in Indiana, Texas and other places before returning to his native Ohio to work at The Columbus Dispatch in 2017. He’s won state and national journalism awards for investigations into utility regulation, public corruption, the environment, prescription drug spending and other matters.
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