On 22 June 2018, in the middle of a family separation controversy stemming from the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, U.S. President Donald Trump himself recycled a claim that undocumented immigrants had committed a disproportionately large number of homicides in the United States.
“Sixty-three thousand Americans since 9/11 have been killed by illegal aliens,” the president said. “This isn’t a problem that’s going away, it’s getting bigger.”
Not only was evidence for that claim lacking, it would require a seemingly superhuman murder spree by the nation’s roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants to be true.
The president’s statement came amidst a cascade of public outcry against internment camps established by the government for undocumented children, which prompted the Trump administration to quickly change course and order undocumented families to be held together. But while the president accused reporters of failing to cover this alleged rash of homicides, the numbers did not support this claim.
According to data provided for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 260,743 homicides in the United States took place from 2002 through 2016 (the most recent year available). It thus seems mathematically impossible that undocumented immigrants, who make up roughly 3 percent of the population, could have committed just under a quarter of all homicides in the United States during that time period. The erroneous figure appears to have originated in a May 2006 post by Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa complaining about the “Day Without an Immigrant” campaign calling attention to the contributions of immigrants to U.S. community.
Without undocumented immigrants, King said, no one would smuggle drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border, and non-immigrants would be safer:
The lives of 12 U.S. citizens would be saved who otherwise die a violent death at the hands of murderous illegal aliens each day. Another 13 Americans would survive who are otherwise killed each day by uninsured drunk driving illegals. Our hospital emergency rooms would not be flooded with everything from gunshot wounds, to anchor babies, to imported diseases to hangnails, giving American citizens the day off from standing in line behind illegals. Eight American children would not suffer the horror as a victim of a sex crime.
A rate of 33 “deaths” per day for the roughly 4.5 years between the 9/11 attacks and the publication of King’s unsubstantiated claim would come out to 48,180 deaths in total, a rate that would far surpass the 63,000 number by 2018 — if the original assumption were legitimate.
During a 2013 event hosted by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), King — who has a history of racist public statements — misrepresented a report from the Government Accountability Office, claiming that 25,064 undocumented immigrants had been arrested for homicides between 2004 and 2008. In fact, the statistic covered the time period between August 1955 and April 2010, a difference of nearly 51 years. The first, misstated timeframe would work out to about 17 homicide arrests per day; the real timeframe works out to approximately 1.25 arrests of undocumented persons for homicide per day, or 456 arrests per year.
If we multiply that figure by eighteen just to be generous (11 September 2001 to 22 June 2018), we get a final figure of about 8,218 arrests, as opposed to the faulty metric yielding a total of around 112,790 homicide arrests in the same timeframe. (We will, for now, ignore the fact that arrests are not the same as convictions, and note that we did not factor in leap days.) So the numbers in the claim fall flat on both the number of murders committed and the arrests and convictions associated with those murders.
In March 2018 an Arizona woman, Mary Ann Mendoza, reportedly related to the president the claim that “63,000” United States citizens had been killed by undocumented immigrants. Mendoza’s son was killed in 2014 by an undocumented drunk driver.
Although the president has attempted to cast immigrants as criminals since he first announced his candidacy in June 2015, various analyses have already undermined the notion that people in the United States without documentation were more likely to commit crimes in general than those born in the country. One of those studies, published in February 2018 by the libertarian group Cato Institute, examined data on criminal convictions in Texas for 2015 and found that:
There were 951 total homicide convictions in Texas in 2015. Of those, native-born Americans were convicted of 885 homicides, illegal immigrants were convicted of 51 homicides, and legal immigrants were convicted of 15 homicides. The homicide conviction rate for native-born Americans was 3.88 per 100,000, 2.9 per 100,000 for illegal immigrants, and 0.51 per 100,000 for legal immigrants (Figure 2). In 2015, homicide conviction rates for illegal and legal immigrants were 25 percent and 87 percent below those of natives, respectively.
Illegal immigrants made up about 6.4 percent of the Texas population in 2015 but only accounted for 5.4 percent of all homicide convictions. Legal immigrants made up 10.4 percent of the Texas population but accounted for only 1.6 percent of homicide convictions. native-born Americans made up 83 percent of the Texas population but accounted for 93 percent of all homicide convictions.
Although the Trump administration has called immigration at the southern U.S. border a “crisis” that has a deleterious effect on public safety, unauthorized border crossings are currently the lowest they have been in decades and studies have consistently disproved links between immigration and crime. Further most of the families who crossed during enforcement of Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy were charged with misdemeanors.