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A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center (Center) found that 57% of Americans believe that “​​the large number of migrants seeking to enter the country leads to more crime.” Broken down by party, the survey found that 85% of Republicans and 31% of Democrats believe this to be true.

Does immigration increase crime? Do people who are in the U.S. illegally really commit crimes at a higher rate than citizens? Does the data support the claim, is it misinformation, or is it unsupported? And what explains the partisan divide in perception?

The Heritage Foundation (Lean Right bias), a conservative think tank, published an article in June 2023 linking increased illegal immigration to increased crime rates. 

The author wrote, “While the majority of illegal aliens seek a better life, the undeniable link between increasing illegal immigration and crime poses a significant threat to American communities.”

Do Unauthorized Immigrants Commit More Crimes?

To back this claim, Heritage cited a 2021 report from the Department of Justice analyzing data from 1998 to 2018. Heritage states, “ A 2021 Department of Justice report revealed that 64% of federal arrests in 2018 involved noncitizens, despite them comprising only 7% of the population at that time.

The DOJ report backs the claim that increased illegal immigration coincides with an increase in federal arrests. But the Heritage Foundation writer omits important context.

In the DOJ report, the first page states that the data accounts for “suspects arrested and prosecuted for both immigration and non-immigration offenses.” With this in mind, it makes sense that arrests would increase in line with increased illegal immigration, since illegal immigration in itself is a crime factored into the data.

The DOJ report goes on to state, “The five crime types for which non-U.S. citizens were most likely to be prosecuted in U.S. district court in 2018 were illegal reentry (72% of prosecutions), drugs (13%), fraud (4.5%), alien smuggling (4%), and misuse of visas (2%). The overwhelming majority of crimes committed by non-U.S. citizens are immigration-related crimes.

While these are in fact crimes, they do not inherently translate to a “significant threat to American communities” as the Heritage article claims, especially since, by the Heritage writer’s own admission, “the majority of illegal aliens seek a better life” and are not entering the country to commit other types of crimes. 

Additionally, the DOJ report states, “There were 21 federal criminal immigration arrests per 100 apprehensions by the U.S. border patrol in the southwest border patrol sectors in 2018, up from 12 per 100 in 2017.” When more people are attempting to cross the border, and border patrol is choosing to arrest more people apprehended while crossing the border, the crime rate is going to rise, and non-citizens are going to account for a larger portion of the crime rate. 

Heritage’s claim fails to make a distinction between immigration crimes and non-immigration crimes. Illegal entry and murder, for instance, are very different crimes, and lumping them together when evaluating data, as the Heritage article does, is disingenuous. 

The first page of the DOJ report states, “Non-U.S. citizens, who make up 7% of the U.S. population (per the U.S. Census Bureau for 2017), accounted for 15% of all federal arrests and 15% of prosecutions in U.S. district court for non-immigration crimes in 2018.”

The Heritage article goes on to list a handful of murders committed by unauthorized migrants. Are these anecdotes representative of the whole? 

Breaking down the data further, the DOJ report states that in 2018, U.S. citizens accounted for 91.2% of federal arrests for crimes of violence, while non-U.S. citizens accounted for 8.8%. Since they comprise an estimated 7% of the population, noncitizens accounted for a slightly disproportionate amount of violence-related federal arrests. 

Another study by the Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs analyzed data from 2012 to 2018, and concluded that “undocumented immigrants had substantially lower crime rates than native-born citizens and legal immigrants across a range of felony offenses. Relative to undocumented immigrants, U.S.-born citizens are over 2 times more likely to be arrested for violent crimes, 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes, and over 4 times more likely to be arrested for property crimes.

Conflicting Studies

A 2022 report from the Center for Immigration Studies argued that studies dismissing a link between illegal immigration and crime rates “do not appreciate that it can take years for Texas to identify convicts as illegal immigrants while they are in custody. As a result, the studies misclassify as native-born a significant number of offenders who are later identified as illegal immigrants.”

The report continued, “If we counted only the illegal immigrants who were initially identified by DHS when arrested for homicide, the 2012 homicide rate (convictions divided by population) would be 2.7 per 100,000 illegal immigrants in [Texas] … This rate, while hardly trivial, is lower than the state’s overall homicide conviction rate of 3.0” per 100,000. 

But when accounting for individuals identified as unauthorized immigrants later during their prison stints, “their homicide rate rises to 3.9 per 100,000,” higher than the state’s average. The study speculated that the rate “could rise even further as more illegal immigrants continue to be identified in prison.”

The report concluded, “While strong claims about the overall criminality of illegal immigrants are not possible with the current data, prior research has understated it substantially.”

In 2018, President Donald Trump said Democrats “want to have illegal immigrants pouring into our country, bringing with them crime, tremendous amounts of crime.” Around the same time, a study on immigration and crime in Arizona suggested that “undocumented immigrants are at least 142% more likely to be convicted of a crime than other Arizonans.” 

Looking at data from 1985 to 2017, the study found that “the murder and manslaughter rate for unauthorized immigrants is 2.7 times higher than the average for U.S. citizens,” and that “If undocumented immigrants committed crime nationally as they do in Arizona, in 2016 they would have been responsible for over 1,000 more murders, 5,200 rapes, 8,900 robberies, 25,300 aggravated assaults, and 26,900 burglaries.”

The study, from John Lott of the Crime Prevention Research Center, was covered widely by right-rated media and was cited by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a speech. It was also met with pushback from people who said it mistakenly included legal immigrants.

“[Lott’s study] includes people who have green cards, temporary work permits, a tourist visa, and it also includes illegal immigrants,” Alex Nowrasteh of the pro-immigration Cato Institute (Lean Right bias) told The Washington Post (Lean Left) in 2018. “We just don’t know how many and John wrote in his paper numerous times that the advantage of his study is that he can identify illegal immigrants, but he can’t.”

Inconclusive Data Prevents Clarity on Immigration and Crime

Further research and better data collection is needed to accurately understand and contextualize the link between crime rates and illegal immigration. 

Importantly, the Post article also noted that “Fact-checkers usually have a hard time refereeing broad claims about undocumented-immigrant crimes, for the simple reason that no group or government agency tracks U.S. prisoners by their immigration status.

Existing research does not completely dismiss the notion that non-citizens commit crimes at a higher rate than citizens, nor does it concretely support it.

Claims made about immigration and crime rates should be viewed with skepticism and awareness of the political bias of the group/individual making the claim. 

Isaiah Anthony is the Deputy Blog Editor of AllSides. He has a Center bias. 

This piece was reviewed by Henry A. Brechter, Editor-in-chief (Center bias), Joseph Ratliff, Content Designer and News Editor (Lean Left bias), and Julie Mastrine, Director of Marketing and Bias Ratings (Lean Right bias).