The murder of Mollie Tibbetts was a tragedy. That her killer was an illegal immigrant makes the crime seem even worse and more senseless. Yet, as conservative news outlets focus attention on 24-year-old Christhian Rivera, a Mexican national living and working illegally in the US, it is important to distinguish between fact and fiction in the discussion about the so-called illegal immigrant crime wave.
Despite claims from immigration hawks, the data does not support claims of a crisis level of violent crimes committed by illegal immigrants. In any large group, there will be both good and bad people. The question is not whether illegal immigrants commit violent crimes, it is whether they do so at a rate that is higher than native-born Americans.
Due to the nature of the group being studied, reliable data is hard to come by. Official government statistics about “criminal aliens” from the GAO do not distinguish between legal and illegal aliens. Therefore, some studies, such as John Lott’s 2018 study of Arizona inmates, are flawed because they make assumptions about who is a legal immigrant and who is not. It’s tough to determine how many crimes are committed by illegals if you can’t determine who is an illegal alien.
There are other ways to skin the cat though. A 2018 article in Criminology cited several studies that looked at community-wide crime rates. One compared “gateway” cities with high immigrant populations to “traditional” American cities. Another looked at different neighborhoods in Austin, Texas. Both found no evidence that neighborhoods with high numbers of immigrants had higher crime rates A third study examined federal Uniform Crime Report data from 2000 through 2010. The study found that even though immigration increased during the period, the crime rate decreased.
When the researchers looked at violent crime, the pattern was the same. Far from being the most dangerous places in the country, cities with many recent immigrants had the lowest homicide rates. Murder rates were more closely associated with age and socially disorganized neighborhoods than immigration status. Immigrants, possibly due to their strong family structures, often helped to lower the homicide and crime rates in their neighborhoods.
Earlier this year, Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute also published a study of illegal immigrant crime rates in Texas where crime data distinguishes between illegal and legal immigrants. The Texas data showed that the overall crime rate and the violent crime rate for both legal and illegal immigrants were far below that of native-born Americans.
Cities on the southern border do not rank among the most dangerous cities in the US even though they are in close proximity to the source of much illegal immigration. The most dangerous city in America is Detroit, located near the Canadian border. We might do more to lower the crime by deploying the national guard to Michigan than the Mexican border.
The killing of Kate Steinle by an illegal immigrant, another high profile case, seems fresh because her killer was acquitted less than a year ago. In reality, Steinle died in 2015. If three years pass between such highly publicized murder cases involving illegal immigrants, it is de facto evidence that such cases are hard to find. If the immigration hardliners could find more cases to sensationalize for their cause, there is little doubt that they would do so.
Despite the headlines about crimes committed by immigrants, it makes logical sense that immigrants commit fewer crimes. The vast majority of immigrants, both legal and illegal, come to the US to work. They have a powerful incentive to stay out of trouble and steer clear of law enforcement. If they get into legal trouble, they not only lose their income, they can be deported. Their entire way of life is at risk if they commit even a small crime and attract the attention of police.
There are violent immigrants, such as members of MS-13, the infamous criminal gang, but even this is exaggerated. There are an estimated 10,000 members of MS-13 in the US, but most are American citizens and not immigrants. Even if the gang was made up entirely of illegal immigrants, it would represent a tiny fraction of the estimated 12 million illegals living in the US.
If the family of Mollie Tibbetts does not take comfort from data that shows that immigrants are more law-abiding that US citizens, that is understandable. However, good policy decisions are not made in the heat of the moment based on an emotional reaction to a tragedy. That is as true with crimes committed by illegals as it is after mass shootings when victims and their relatives often clamor for a quick solution. As H.L. Mencken said, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” As citizens of a republic, we pay our elected officials to dispassionately consider the facts and enact policies based on the right solution rather than impractical, feel-good policies.
In fact, the anti-immigrant chorus in the wake of Mollie Tibbetts’s murder sounds a lot like the anti-gun crowd after a mass shooting. In a great many cases, the phrase “illegal immigrant” in Republican rhetoric can be interchanged with the word “gun” in Democratic rhetoric after a mass shooting. Granted, Mollie Tibbetts would still be alive if there were no illegal immigrants, but there would also be no mass shootings if there were no guns. Neither argument contains a practical solution. Deporting all illegals is no more workable than banning all guns.
For conservatives, a practical solution to the problem of illegal immigrant crime should fit the problem. The conservative solution should keep government growth to a minimum, it should keep costs to a minimum (including both direct expenditures and costs to the economy from removing people from the workforce) and it should minimize disruptions to families. Conservatives should keep in mind that many illegal immigrants have family members, often dependents, who are American citizens with the same constitutional rights as any other American.
Considering the fact that most illegal immigrants are peaceful contributors to the US economy and their local communities, the best solution seems to be to focus on illegals with a propensity for violence rather than wasting limited law enforcement resources on people who are here to earn a living. Border security is needed to control who enters the country, but so is reform for the legal immigration system. Fewer migrant workers will cross the border illegally if the wall has a big door with a welcome sign.
The murder of Mollie Tibbetts was a horrible crime, but it should not be used to unfairly demonize all illegal immigrants. Illegal immigration is a crime, but there is a huge difference between crossing the border to work without authorization and committing a brutal murder. Any conservative solution must recognize the difference.
Originally published on The Resurgent