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President Donald Trump talked about business moving to the U.S., chain migration, energy exports and the Islamic State group. We break down the facts. (Jan. 30)
AP

President Trump tried to strike an optimistic tone during his State of the Union Address, but when he talked about immigrants, things got dark.

When he mentioned undocumented immigrants, he focused on gang members,  murderers and the threats they pose. When he turned to legal immigrants, he warned of their potential to commit terrorist attacks.

Missing from the president’s speech was proof that immigrants are more likely to commit crimes or acts of terrorism than native-born Americans. Immigration experts, including academic researchers, say there was a simple reason: All available national crime statistics show immigrants commit fewer crimes, not more, than those born in the U.S. Even opponents of increased immigration lack evidence linking immigrants to higher crime rates. 

“There’s 100 years of data from all different sources that all point in the same direction,” said Walter Ewing, senior researcher at the American Immigration Council, which advocates on behalf of immigrants. “If you don’t believe one study, there’s 10 more behind it that say the same thing.”

Ewing and others acknowledge that assessing the criminality of immigrants has always been difficult because statistics are hard to come by. Local police do not list the immigration status of those arrested, meaning it’s impossible to determine exactly how many crimes are committed by legal immigrants, undocumented immigrants and native-born citizens.

Immigration researchers have spent decades trying to work around the problem.

One method uses prison data to determine the immigration status of convicted criminals. Those who are foreign-born make up more than 13% of the U.S. population, but the Justice Department released a report in January that found only 5.6% of inmates in federal, state and local prisons are foreign-born. 

The libertarian Cato Institute used similar data when it concluded that the incarceration rate for native-born Americans is 1.53% compared to 0.85% for undocumented immigrants and 0.47% for legal immigrants. When Cato subtracted people in prison solely for immigration violations, the incarceration rate for undocumented immigrants fell to 0.5%.

Ewing used another approach to look at national immigration trends. From 1990 to 2013, both legal and undocumented immigrants came pouring into the U.S. The percentage of the U.S. population that is foreign-born increased from 7.1% to 13.1%. Yet over that time, violent crime rates plummeted 48% across the country.

In 2014, a team of university professors took a different approach. They examined crime habits of juveniles convicted of felonies in Arizona and Pennsylvania. Their study found that native-born juveniles were more likely to become repeat offenders than immigrant juveniles.

Department of Homeland Security statistics offer another way to look at the question. Nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children have received deportation protections under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which Trump is in the process of ending.

DACA enrollees are required to maintain a clean criminal record to remain in the program. In the six years since the program started, only 2,127 DACA enrollees (0.27%) have been removed from the program after committing crimes or being identified as gang members, according to data from Homeland Security. 

More: We fact checked 15 Trump State of the Union points. Some rang true, others mostly false or exaggerated

More: Trump administration highlights ‘foreign-born’ terror-related criminals in immigration push

More: What is ‘chain migration’ and why does President Trump want to end it?

Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that has advised the White House on ways to limit legal and illegal immigration, said each of those approaches contains significant flaws. For example, she said the number of immigrants in U.S. jails and prisons may be low because some criminal immigrants get deported and others are released into the community by “sanctuary cities.” 

Vaughan’s team has researched the question of immigrant criminality for years and concluded it’s impossible to determine whether immigrants commit crimes at a higher rate than the native-born. Vaughan said the answer doesn’t even matter.

“Kate Steinle’s parents I’m sure don’t care one bit whether the crime rate in San Francisco is higher or lower than anybody else,” she said, referring to the 32-year-old who was shot and killed by an undocumented immigrant in 2015. “The issue is not crime rates. The issue what we do with that small fraction of immigrants that is committing crimes and causing problems.”

Steinle’s death has been repeatedly mentioned by Trump and others who want to limit immigration into the U.S. But the undocumented immigrant accused of murdering her, Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, was acquitted in December by a jury after he claimed he fired the gun by accident and a ballistics expert testified that the bullet ricocheted off the ground and traveled 80 feet before striking Steinle. He was found guilty of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

Zarate’s acquittal may be why Trump did not mention Steinle’s death Tuesday night. Instead, he introduced the parents of two teen girls killed by undocumented immigrants allegedly belonging to the notorious MS-13 gang, an international gang formed in Los Angeles and mostly made up of Salvadoran immigrants.

Moira O’Neil noticed another Trump tactic of repetition during the speech, where he mentioned the MS-13 gang four times and said the word gang five times.

“It’s very effective,” said O’Neil, who studies the public perception of immigration for the FrameWorks Institute in Washington, D.C. “People are hearing that over and over and over again.”

O’Neil said immigration advocates have not been able to match the Trump administration’s rhetoric when framing the immigration debate. She said Trump has been hammering the idea that immigrants are criminals, while Democrats and other immigration supporters have been unable to keep up.

As a result, she said the public may associate immigrants with crime, leading to a stereotype that sticks.

“Think about it like exercising,” O’Neil said. “Every time he says MS-13, that association between immigrants and criminality is being activated in their minds. The way to counter that is to remind people of a very positive vision that lots of people have about immigrants. They are us. They are human beings.”

 

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