Reactionary Talking Points: Looking at a Claim of Criminality Amongst Illegal Immigrants in the USA

(Posted 10/21/2007) - I'll start by saying that on the subject of criminality amongst illegal immigrants in the USA, I believe there are those who manufacture facts that are not supported by real data. Their aim is to inflame public opinion rather than to inform. These unsubstantiated claims quickly find their way into the talking points of a vocal minority in this country who want us all to fear our neighbors to the south.

If you hold an opposing view you may be disposed to stop right here, thinking I'm delusional. After all we've heard folks like Colorado Representative and presidential hopeful Tom Tancredo dishing out some pretty damning numbers that seem to indicate that there is evidence for the belief that Mexican Illegals have introduced a crime wave in the US.

But to make my initial point about mis-information masquerading as fact, let's look at just one of Tancredo's key talking points to see if a closer examination supports his suppositions.

Representative Tancredo, in a recent live interview in New Jersey played on CSPAN Q and A, said that the city's Sanctuary Policy was enabling illegal immigrant South American criminals to prosper there in disproportionate numbers.

To support his position that Sanctuary Cities were at extreme risk from this illegal immigrant element he repeated an often heard quote, "In LA County they report that 95% of all murder warrants are for illegal immigrants." Pretty damning if true.

But, is this statement true? When someone pulls out a fact that appears to be an argument clinching zinger, the first thing I always try to do is research the source(s). Here are the sources I found with regard to the statement that "in LA County 95% of murder warrants are for illegal immigrants."

Most who use the quote refer to an LA Times editorial from 2002. The problem is if one searches the LA Times archives there is no match on any partial string that appears to support this outlandish statement (ref: this Snopes Analysis, Item #2 - Origins.

What one can find however is the following excerpt from unsworn testimony by Heather Mac Donald, Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, given before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security. Ref:

Here is a verbatim excerpt from her testimony, which by the way was never attributed to any primary source (very typical of these statements it seems), "In Los Angeles, 95 percent of all outstanding warrants for homicide in the first half of 2004 (which totaled 1,200 to 1,500) targeted illegal aliens."

Without a source for Mac Donald's assertion why would anyone accept it as true? She published a book in which she also made this statement but provided no evidence to substantiate her source for the information. Failing to provide attribution for claims so there can be peer revue is a sure sign that this Manhattan Institute Fellow is a shill, not a researcher.

But there is another avenue to be explored. Accepting Mac Donald's data for the moment, there is still a very large gap between what she testified to and the talking point version being repeated by Tancredo and others.

Consider the following: Suppose 100 murder warrants were issued in County X in 2004, and that 90 of the warrants were executed successfully (meaning aprehension of the defendant). If an illegal alien committed murder and fled the USA it would follow that the warrant for this person would remain outstanding. So, if in County X 9 of the 10 outstanding warrants were associated with illegal immigrants I could say factually that 90% of all county X's outstanding murder warrants were for illegal immigrants. But 91% of the murder charges were against citizens in this example.

So, instead of 95% of the murders being done by illegal immigrants we find less than 10% of the murders being done by this cohort. Pretty big difference isn't it?

The point is that without knowing the number of murder warrants issued and closed by the county in a given period, it is meaningless to talk of "outstanding warrants" in any meaningful way. But this is precisely what the cherry-pickers do. They look for statements that seem to imply things to the casual observer -- but the implications fall apart under honest scrutiny.

Additionally, the parsing of Mac Donald's statement, that their were 1200 - 1500 outstanding murder warrants in LA County in 2004 is open to many interpretations. Here are two which point to very different conclusions.

Interpretation 1: Some unspecified number of new homicide warrants were issued in just part of 2004. At that time there were also a total of 1200 - 1500 accumulated (across an unspecified, longer period) open warrents in LA County of which 95% are for illegal immigrants.

Interpretation 2: Their were 1200 - 1500 homicide warrants issued in just part of 2004. A subset of those remain open and 95% of that subset are for suspects that are illegal aliens.

As you can see the inferences one draws about the threat from criminal elements that enter the country illegally in LA County may vary considerably when you know the unspecified information associated with either of these interpretations. Alas, no such information will be forthcoming from Mac Donald or any of her fans.

Contrast the above convoluted thinking with the following studies published in 2001 by the Center for Immigration Studies and in particular read the "recent research" section that attributes INS and FBI studies in support of the conclusion that the immigrant population (including illegals) shows no over-all bump in criminality when compared to citizens at the national level.

Over the last 6 years there seems to have been a ramp up among what I'll call nativists; reactionary minded folks who cannot empathize with the motives of immigrants seeking a better life in a county which now throws up road blocks to their entry that were unheard of only 50 years ago. Nativists (whos very parents or grandparents immigrated to this country in some cases) are now screaming about dirty Mexicans (Columbians, Peruvian's etc) sneaking into our country while ignoring the immigrant history of the USA.

This country is what it is today because of immigrants and a set of laws that makes the USA so very special - by constraining the current haves just a bit, while empowering the current have-nots just enough to let them succeed through hard work and imagination.

So, to Mr. Tancredo and all like minded reactionary's, I hope you fail in your efforts to make us all fearful of our South American neighbors. I also hope they continue to find a way to contribute to this county's great evolution as a free society.