Crunching Numbers on Immigrant Crime

When sometime next year the debate over a national comprehensive immigration reform begins in earnest, it will surely be a deeply polarized one, pitting immigration “hawks” favoring a punitive approach against “doves” favoring a more lenient assimilationist approach.
One critical subtext of this debate will no doubt be the true extent of criminality within the illegal immigrant population and the degree of public danger it poses, or doesn’t, an area where at least in theory both camps could at least argue from a common set of facts.
Unfortunately existing data and statistics on immigrant criminality are unlikely to provide the basis of consensus, according to a new study.
The report, titled "Immigration and Crime: Assessing a Conflicted Issue" , published last week by The Center for Immigration Studies, finds that research by groups on both sides of the immigration debate are based on ambiguous information and that the lack of consistently good data currently available currently provides at best a confusing portrait of immigrant criminality.
The report is critical of several recent government studies documenting high crime rates among the immigrant population in particular those based on data from the The 287(g) program and related efforts which have found high rates of illegal alien incarceration in some communities.
“In recent years,” it says, “US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has worked harder to identify the foreign-born, particularly illegal aliens and other deportable non-citizens who are inmates in the nation’s prisons and jails. In addition, a number of state and local governments have recently begun working with ICE under various programs to identify deportable non-citizens in their jurisdictions.” While much of this new data, the report notes, contradicts the earlier academic research by showing high rates of crime and incarceration among immigrants, particularly illegal aliens, “this new data is not without problems.”
The first and most important problem with trying to analyze 287(g) data, the report explains, “ is that we have complete information for only 10 counties, out of more 3,100 counties and hundreds of cities that also run jails.” “This could createbias,” it adds, “ because only those communities where illegal aliens are suspected of committing a large share of crime are enrolled in the program or have had an audit done by ICE.”
Further the report questions The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimates, based on data obtained from the Secure Communities Initiative , that immigrants (legal and illegal) comprise 20 percent of inmates in prisons and jails,claiming that DHS has not yet provided a detailed explanation of how the estimates were generated.
“The new estimates,” the report says, “could indicate high rates of criminality for immigrants overall. To the best of our knowledge it is the only estimate that the federal government has ever calculated for the size of the total immigrant population in prisons and jails. But the biggest problem with these numbers is that we have been unable to obtain a detailed methods statement explaining how the estimates were generated.”
The report also takes issue with other data published by the Federal Bureau of Prisons reporting that 26.4 percent of inmates in federal prisons are non-U.S. citizens. Non-citizens are 8.6 percent of the nation’s adult population, arguing that, federal prisons are not representative of prisons generally or local jails.
The report is equally critical of studies often cited by immigrant’s rights activist groups which have found that crime rates are actually lower in immigrant communities than in the US population at large.
In particular it faults reports by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) and Immigration Policy Center (IPC) showing low rates of immigrant incarceration for being based on “unreliable” 2000 Census data.
“ An analysis of the data used in the PPIC and IPC studies by the National Research Council found that 53 percent of the time the Census Bureaus had to make an educated guess whether a prisoner was an immigrant,” the report notes, concluding that”the studies are essentially measuring these guesses, not actual immigrant incarceration.”
“The poor quality of data used in the PPIC and IPC studies,” the report adds, “is illustrated by wild and implausible swings. It shows a 28 percent decline in incarcerated immigrants 1990 to 2000 — yet the overall immigrant population grew 59 percent. Newer Census data from 2007 show a 146 percent increase in immigrant incarceration 2000 to 2007 — yet, the overall immigrant population grew only 22 percent.”
The report also critiques a Survey of Inmates in State and Federal Correctional Facilities which shows that 8.1 percent of prisoners in state prisons are immigrants (legal and illegal). The survey, it says, excludes jails and relies on inmate self-identification, which is likely to understate the number of immigrants.
This report concludes that given the current state of social science on the issue in remains impossible to come to any unequivocal conclusion about the extent of immigrant criminality. Problems with data collection and contrary results characterize information about the link between immigrants and crime, as “questions remain regarding all of these numbers.”
“We find that it would be a mistake to assume that immigrants as a group are more prone to crime than other groups, or that they should be viewed with more suspicion than others,” the report says. “Even though immigrant incarceration rates are high in some populations, there is no clear evidence that immigrants commit crimes at higher or lower rates than others.”
‘Nevertheless,” the report adds, “it also would be a mistake to conclude that immigrant crime is insignificant or that offenders’ immigration status is irrelevant in local policing. The newer information available as a result of better screening of the incarcerated population suggests that, in many parts of the country, immigrants are responsible for a significant share of crime. This indicates that there are legitimate public safety reasons for local law enforcement agencies to determine the immigration status of offenders and to work with federal immigration authorities.”

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