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Trump says migrants are fueling violent crime in US, but research shows otherwise

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Donald Trump is blaming migrants in the U.S. illegally for fueling violent crime as part of his campaign to win back the White House, repeating rhetoric used during his previous run for the presidency. But studies show immigrants are not more likely to engage in criminality.

WHAT IS TRUMP SAYING ABOUT IMMIGRANTS AND CRIME?

Former U.S. President Donald Trump, a Republican challenging President Joe Biden in the November elections, has focused on crimes committed by immigrants in the U.S. illegally as part of his argument for stricter border controls.

Trump says Biden’s policies are overly permissive and has branded crimes committed by immigrants in the country illegally as “Biden migrant crime.”

Trump has used dehumanizing terminology to describe immigrants in the U.S. illegally, calling them “animals” when talking about alleged criminal acts, and saying they are “poisoning the blood of our country,” a phrase that has drawn criticism as xenophobic and echoing Nazi rhetoric. In response to the criticism, Trump has said he had no idea that German dictator Adolf Hitler had used similar language.

Recently, Trump and Republicans have focused on the case of Laken Riley, a 22-year-old nursing student from Georgia allegedly murdered by a Venezuelan in the country illegally.

The Republican National Committee earlier this month launched a website called “Biden Bloodbath” that highlights anecdotal incidents involving migrants in eight U.S. states, including electoral battlegrounds such as Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Trump campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung responded to a Reuters request for comment on research on the issue with a list of news articles about alleged crimes committed by immigrants in the U.S. illegally.

HOW HAS BIDEN RESPONDED?

Biden was interrupted during the State of the Union address in March by Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican who demanded Biden acknowledge the murder.

Biden responded by saying Riley was “an innocent woman who was killed by an illegal.” He then asked how many people were killed by “legals” – apparently referencing citizens and others in the country legally.

Biden later said he regretted calling Riley’s accused killer “illegal” and said the term should have been “undocumented.”

Biden’s top border official, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, said at a reporter roundtable last week that he “profoundly” disagrees with efforts “to demonize all migrants based on the actions of an individual.”

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White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said earlier this month, that violent rhetoric was being used “to tear our country apart.”

DO IMMIGRANTS COMMIT MORE CRIME THAN THE NATIVE BORN?

A range of studies by academics and think tanks have shown that immigrants do not commit crime at a higher rate than native-born Americans.

A more limited universe of studies specifically examine criminality among immigrants in the U.S. illegally but also find that they do not commit crimes at a higher rate.

A selection of recent research: Immigration and Crime: Assessing a Contentious Issue, ” by Charis Kubrin, a criminology professor at the University of California, Irvine, and Graham Ousey, a sociology professor at William & Mary. The 2018 study was published in the peer-reviewed Annual Review of Criminology.

• A meta-analysis of more than fifty studies on the link between immigration and crime between 1994 and 2014 found there was no significant relationship between the two.

• The researchers subsequently studied all aspects of the issue in a book, published last year that came to similar results. Law-Abiding Immigrants: The Incarceration Gap Between Immigrants and the US-born, 1870–2020, “by Ran Abramitzky, economics professor at Stanford University and four other researchers. The 2024 working paper was published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

• The study, which used U.S. Census data, found immigrants had lower incarceration rates than the U.S.-born over a 150-year period.

“Comparing crime rates between undocumented immigrants, legal immigrants, and native-born US citizens in Texas, “by Michael Light, sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and two other researchers. The 2020 study was published in the peer-reviewed Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

  • The report, which used data from the Texas Department of Public Safety between 2012-2018, found a lower felony arrest rate for immigrants in the U.S. illegally compared to legal immigrants and native-born U.S. citizens and no evidence of increasing criminality among immigrants.
  • Light published a study, opens new tab in 2017 that found illegal immigration does not increase violent crime. The study used data from all 50 U.S. states and Washington, D.C., from 1990-2014. A separate study found, no link between increased illegal immigration and drunk-driving deaths.
  • The libertarian think tank has published multiple, opens reports, that show immigrants in the country commit crimes at lower rates than the native-born. In a recent USA Today op-ed, Nowrasteh previewed new research that found immigrants in the U.S. illegally in Texas were about 26% less likely to be convicted of homicide than native-born Americans from 2013-2022.

HOW RELIABLE IS THE DATA?

Several of the studies mentioned above were conducted by academic researchers and published in peer-reviewed journals.

The studies draw on a range of data sources, including U.S. Census records and estimates of the number of immigrants in the U.S. illegally.

Several reports examining crime rates for immigrants in the U.S. illegally use data from the Texas Department of Public Safety, which logs immigration status in its arrest records.

Michael Light, one of the researchers who used the Texas data, said that crime rates would likely vary from state to state, but that the Texas figures were the best available.

The Cato Institute’s Nowrasteh said researchers would have a better idea of the crime rate for immigrants in the country illegally if other states maintained and shared data in the same manner as Texas.

DO ANY STUDIES FIND IMMIGRANTS MORE LIKELY TO COMMIT CRIMES?

The Center for Immigration Studies, a research group that supports lower levels of immigration, has argued that researchers using data from the Texas Department of Public Safety undercounted crimes by immigrants in the country illegally.

The group said in 2022, that both Michael Light and Nowrasteh failed to account for immigrants who were identified as being in the country illegally after they were imprisoned. Nowrasteh contested, the CIS critique and said the group double-counted some criminal offenders in the country illegally.

In its own study in 2009, CIS found “there is no clear evidence that immigrants commit crimes at higher or lower rates than others.”

A 2018 study, using Arizona state prison records from 1985-2017 found that immigrants in the country illegally were more likely to be convicted of a crime. The study, by conservative economist John Lott, found immigrants in the U.S. illegally tend to commit more serious crimes and serve longer sentences. But the Cato Institute’s Nowrasteh criticized the findings, saying Lott had included immigrants who had legal status in the U.S. and may have violated the terms of a visa by committing a crime.

IS IT POSSIBLE THAT TRENDS HAVE SHIFTED RECENTLY?

The data used to determine crime rates is typically several years old, so it does not explicitly speak to current or future trends.

However, some studies found consistent patterns over long periods of time.

Several researchers mentioned that more families and unaccompanied children have been caught crossing the border in the past decade, groups that are statistically less likely to commit crimes.

Michael Light, the University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, said U.S. research overall does not indicate immigrants are more likely to commit crime.

“Of course foreign-born individuals have committed crimes,” Light said in an interview. “But do foreign-born individuals commit crime at a disproportionately higher rate than native-born individuals? The answer is pretty conclusively no.”

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