Representative Lamar Smith and Unauthorized Immigrant Crime

08/03/2012 12:29 pm ET | Updated Oct 03, 2012
  • Alex Nowrasteh Immigration Policy Analyst, Cato Institute's Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity

A recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) report claims many unauthorized immigrants identified, but not deported, under the Secure Communities (SCOMM) program went on to be re-arrested for other crimes. The CRS report's findings, however, are not a secure basis for any policy conclusions concerning immigration.

Representative Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) asked the CRS to compile this data, "in order to inform Congress on the problem of criminal immigrants and their effect on public safety." To judge the impact of criminal immigrants we need to compare their criminality to the rest of American society. If immigrants are less likely to become criminals, then they lower the crime rate. If they are more likely to become criminals, then they would raise the crime rate. The CRS report does not include that relevant data in its report.

SCOMM is a federal immigration enforcement program that checks fingerprint records of arrestees against immigration and criminal databases. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issues detainers for suspected unauthorized immigrants, requesting that local police departments either release the arrestee into ICE custody or hold them until ICE can pick up the arrestee.

Unauthorized immigrants identified by SCOMM have to first come into contact with the police and then be arrested. Many times the police arrest the wrong people, arrest two sides in a domestic dispute, or are just plain incompetent and arrest innocent people. This is an obvious point, but on average people who are arrested are more likely to be violent or property criminals than the rest of the population.

The CRS report, therefore, is measuring a subset of unauthorized immigrants who are more likely to actually be criminals than other unauthorized immigrants, natives, or just about anybody else who does not get arrested. To explain it further, the CRS report has created two filters to separate criminal unauthorized immigrants from non-criminal unauthorized immigrants.

The first filter is police contact. Arrested unauthorized immigrants are more likely to be criminals than non-arrested unauthorized immigrants. The second filter is a re-arrest. Unauthorized immigrants re-arrested within a few years of their initial arrest are even more likely to be criminals than the first group. CRS identifies 16.58% of initial arrestees who are then re-arrested within three years. That is a double filter to isolate criminality.

According to the CRS report, the re-arrest rate for unauthorized immigrants was 16.58%, meaning that 16.58% of unauthorized immigrants would be arrested at least twice in the three year period studied in the government report. Identical statistics for the rest of the population do not exist, so we have no way to judge whether unauthorized immigrants have a comparatively high or a low rate of recidivism. Without that yardstick for comparison, the results of the CRS report are not particularly informative.

The best and most recent data I have been able to find is the re-arrest rate for former prisoners released from jail in 1994. The recidivism rate for former prisoners three years after their release was 67.5% - four times greater than the re-arrest rate for unauthorized immigrants recorded in the CRS report.

My analysis is not an apples to apples comparison, so this rough calculation is subject to various caveats. The CRS and I use different, albeit similar, categories. Data do not exist on the arrest and re-arrest rate for the rest of the population, so a precise comparison does not seem possible. I could have overlooked some data, so if data on the native rate of re-arrests exists a better comparison would be possible and we can delve deeper into the statistics.

Immigrants, regardless of immigration status, seem to be much less likely than natives to be convicted of property or violent crimes according to a wealth of studies on the topic. Cities with higher numbers of immigrants and that are closer to the southern border are more peaceful and less crime prone. It is possible to hypothesize that immigrants are attracted to low crime rates, they don't cause them. While that is true, after they move to these cities in large numbers the crime rates continue to fall. There is no evidence of an immigrant crime wave.

None of this is meant to excuse the violent and property crimes committed by anybody, immigrant or otherwise. They should be punished for their violent and property crimes like everybody else. But the CRS report details crimes committed by unauthorized immigrants filtered through at least two levels of law enforcement with no comparison to the rest of the population. That is no foundation for policy making.