The path to the crime crisis often articulated by President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions goes something like this: Although rates of violent crime remain near their lowest points over the past half-century, spikes in gun violence in several cities — most notably Chicago — are evidence that things are deteriorating. (The Brennan Center for Justice estimated that increased killings in Chicago constituted half of the overall increase in homicides in big cities nationally in 2016.) This crime wave, then, bolsters the administration’s efforts on immigration through a simple rhetorical connection.
“So much of the problems — you look at Chicago and you look at other places,” Trump said in February. “So many of the problems are caused by gang members, many of whom are not even legally in our country.” When his Justice Department warned nine jurisdictions last week that they faced reduced federal funding if they upheld “sanctuary city” policies, a news release reiterated that purported link. “Many of these jurisdictions are also crumbling under the weight of illegal immigration and violent crime,” it read. “The number of homicides in Chicago has skyrocketed, rising more than 50 percent from the 2015 levels.” That’s the end point of the path: Crime is up and illegal immigration is the cause.
There’s little evidence that this is really the case. Studies indicate that immigrants broadly are more law-abiding than native citizens. There’s no evidence that a big percentage of immigrants in the country commit violent crimes, much less that they constitute most or even many of the violent criminals in the country. There’s no link between a jurisdiction being a sanctuary city and higher crime rates.
We can evaluate the Trump administration’s claim more directly, though. The site DNAInfo collects data on each homicide in Chicago, including data on age and race.
Since January, the site has logged 190 killings in the city. About 82 percent of the victims were black. Nine percent were white, and 4 percent were Hispanic.
FBI data show that most killings in the United States are carried out by people in the same racial group as the victim. The reason for this is obvious: Homicides are usually a function of personal relationships, and people generally associate with family members and friends who share their racial identity. When Trump retweeted a set of fake data implying that black Americans were responsible for most homicides, we created this chart.
Why does this matter? Because most of the undocumented immigrants in Chicago are from Latin America — implying that they’re heavily Hispanic.
The Chicago Tribune created estimates of the size and composition of the undocumented population in Illinois, determining that about 36 percent of immigrants living in the state illegally lived in Chicago and that 84 percent of all of those immigrants came from Latin America.
(That the second-largest group of immigrants in the country illegally originates from Asia shouldn’t be surprising. New research from the Pew Research Center suggests that, even as the number of undocumented immigrants from Mexico fell since 2009, the number from Asia increased by 17 percent.)
The implication, just to spell it out, is that most of the immigrants in Chicago illegally are Hispanic, not black. (While the Census Bureau differentiates between race and ethnicity — meaning that one can be both Hispanic and black — the DNAInfo figures do not.)
We can’t say from these figures that there is no link between immigrants in the country illegally and Chicago’s homicide problem. There are a number of ways to argue that there may be a link. Perhaps those crimes without known perpetrators — most of them — were committed by such immigrants. (A request for information about the immigration status of known suspects from the state attorney of Cook County was not answered by the time this article was published.) Perhaps some of the victims of the killings fell into that category. Most realistically, perhaps many of the killings can be traced to gang activity that ties, directly or indirectly, to criminal groups linked in some way to Latin America. (How such links would overlap with illegal immigration is another question.)
What we can say, though, is that this isn’t what we’d expect the demographics to look like if Chicago’s homicides were tightly intertwined with a population of immigrants who are in the country illegally from Latin America.
This is just one city, but it’s one that has driven much of Trump’s rhetoric on crime. There’s no question that the recent increase in killings in Chicago deserve attention and analysis. But it’s very fair to question the role that illegal immigration plays in that increase.