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Donald Trump’s false comments connecting Mexican immigrants and crime

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

–Real estate mogul Donald Trump, presidential announcement speech, June 16, 2015

“I can never apologize for the truth. I don’t mind apologizing for things. But I can’t apologize for the truth. I said tremendous crime is coming across. Everybody knows that’s true. And it’s happening all the time. So, why, when I mention, all of a sudden I’m a racist. I’m not a racist. I don’t have a racist bone in my body.”

–Trump, interview on Fox News’ “Media Buzz,” July 5, 2015

“What can be simpler or more accurately stated? The Mexican Government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.”

–Trump, statement about his June 16 comments, July 6, 2015

Several readers asked us to fact-check Trump’s initial comment, which has drawn outrage from Latino groups and led to breakups with his corporate partners distancing themselves from the inflammatory remarks.

This posed a conundrum for The Fact Checker. We had fact checked most of his statements from his news conference announcing his effort to win the GOP presidential nomination, but many of those were in the realm of domestic and international policy. We tend not to wade into fact checking incendiary comments that some might label opinion.

But Trump’s statement — which he repeatedly has defended — underscores public perceptions that can drive immigration policies. For example, the 2010 murder of a rancher by a suspected smuggler in an Arizona border city fueled public and political pressure on then-Gov. Jan Brewer to sign the controversial anti-immigrant Senate Bill 1070 into law.

What do the data tell us about the criminal threat of immigrants?

The Facts

Data on immigrants and crime are incomplete, but a range of studies show there is no evidence immigrants commit more crimes than native-born Americans. In fact, first-generation immigrants are predisposed to lower crime rates than native-born Americans. (The Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for restrictive immigration laws, has a detailed report showing the shortfalls of immigrant crime data.)

Immigration and crime levels have had inverse trajectories since the 1990s: immigration has increased, while crime has decreased. Some experts say the influx of immigrants contributed to the decrease in crime rates, by increasing the denominator while not adding significantly to the numerator.

In his July 6 statement, Trump clarified that he was referring to cases where undocumented immigrants commit violent crimes or smuggle drugs. He pointed to the recent incident in San Francisco, where an undocumented immigrant and a repeat felon who had been deported five times to Mexico was arrested on suspicion of fatally shooting a woman.

Trump’s campaign pointed to data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which tracks citizenship of offenders in federal prisons by primary offense, which is the offense with the longest maximum sentence when a person is convicted of multiple offenses. Of 78,022 primary offense cases in fiscal year 2013, 38.6 percent were illegal immigrant offenders. The majority of their cases (76 percent) were immigration related. Of total primary offenses, 17.6 percent of drug trafficking offenses and 3.8 percent of sex abuse were illegal immigrants. Of 22,878 drug crime cases, 17.2 percent were illegal immigrants.

But these numbers are not indicative of general crime trends of non-citizens. Federal prisoners made up 10 percent of the total incarcerated population in the United States in 2013. When asked how the data are indicative of the Mexican government sending criminals to the United States, or that there is a crime wave coming across the border, a Trump campaign adviser said: “The data speaks for itself.”

The Congressional Research Service found that the vast majority of unauthorized immigrants do not fit in the category that fits Trump’s description: aggravated felons, whose crimes include murder, drug trafficking or illegal trafficking of firearms.

CRS also found that non-citizens make up a smaller percentage of the inmate population in state prisons and jails, compared to their percentage to the total U.S. population.

An analysis of 2010 Census data in a report from the American Immigration Council, a pro-immigration group, shows that 1.6 percent of immigrant males 18 to 39 years old were incarcerated, compared to 3.3 percent of native-born males. That disparity in incarceration rates has been consistent in the decennial Census since 1980, the report says.

The trend holds when comparing less educated Mexican, Salvadoran and Guatemalan men — who make up the bulk of the undocumented immigrant population — to their native-born counterparts, as shown below:

Are countries like Mexico “not sending their best”?

Immigration offenses account for the largest portion of federal convictions of immigrants (the majority of whom were from Mexico), followed by drug and traffic violations. Sex offenses comprised 1.6 percent of total crimes in 2013.

Inmate legal status is not always tracked at local jails or state prisons. The Government Accountability Office’s 2011 analysis collected reports from 2003 to 2009 to the Department of Justice’s State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, through which states and localities get reimbursed for convicting and incarcerating inmates of illegal or unknown immigration status (mainly from Mexico).

The GAO found that drug offenses made up the majority of convictions in fiscal year 2008 in the five states (Arizona, California, Florida, New York and Texas) with the largest populations of such inmates. These convictions were both felony and misdemeanor crimes, including use/under the influence, manufacturing, transporting and possession of paraphernalia.

Cartel- and gang-related arrests along the Texas southern border decreased after a border surge in 2014, the Houston Chronicle reported. In 2013, the Center for Investigative Reporting found that four out of five arrests for drug smuggling involved U.S. citizens.

The Department of Homeland Security in recent years has targeted immigration enforcement to those who committed serious crimes through efforts like Secure Communities, rolled out per county from 2008 through 2012. But a recent study showed that increased enforcement didn’t lead to decreased crime, calling into question whether serious crimes were prevalent.

Researchers found Secure Communities did not result in a meaningful reduction in the FBI’s overall index crime rate or in rates of violent crimes. There were modest reductions in burglary and motor vehicle theft, not serious crimes like homicides or violent crime. (This program is now on its way out.)

The theory is that immigrants generally have a stronger incentive than native-born Americans to stay out of legal trouble — especially undocumented immigrants, who risk deportation. And those who legally are in the United States (or are pursuing legal status) are required to pass a criminal background check.

“Immigrants in general — unauthorized immigrants in particular — are a self-selected group who generally come to the U.S. to work. And once they’re here, most of them want to keep their nose down and do their business, and they’re sensitive to the fact that they’re vulnerable,” said Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank.

Interestingly, crime rates increase as generations of immigrants assimilate into America. Second-generation immigrants, who are born in the United States and have at least one foreign-born parent, are more likely to commit crimes than first-generation immigrants, and have similar crime rates as native-born Americans.

The Pinocchio Test

It’s difficult to connect any crime with illegal immigration, by its nature. Drug smuggling and violent crimes do exist, but the cases are not indicative of larger trends in the immigrant population. What we do know about crime rates among non-citizens and inmates with unknown or unauthorized immigrant statuses show Trump’s assertions about a crime wave are not accurate.

Trump’s repeated statements about immigrants and crime underscore a common public perception that crime is correlated with immigration, especially illegal immigration. But that is a misperception; no solid data support it, and the data that do exist negate it. Trump can defend himself all he wants, but the facts just are not there.

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"They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
in his presidential announcement speech
Tuesday, June 16, 2015