Explaining Trump’s Tweet on Crimes by Immigrants

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Twenty-two days into the longest government shutdown ever, President Trump continued to press his case for a border wall. His tweet on Saturday was crammed with statistics that were either exaggerated or omitted important context.

Immigrant prison population

Mr. Trump’s figure for the percentage of unauthorized immigrants in federal prisons is exaggerated.

Out of the Bureau of Prisons’ total inmate population of 183,058 in the first quarter of the 2018 fiscal year, 21 percent were immigrants, both legal and undocumented, according to a government report. At least 13 percent of the total population, or 23,826 inmates, were in the country unlawfully. The immigration status of another 11,698 inmates was under investigation, while 2,608 inmates were lawful immigrants or had received relief from deportation.

The most common crimes committed by these immigrants were drug-related offenses (46 percent) and immigration offenses (29 percent).

It’s worth noting, too, that about half of the arrests made by the federal government are for immigration-related offenses, perhaps explaining the high proportion of immigrants in federal prisons. The report acknowledges that it does include data from state and local prisons, which house 90 percent of all inmates in the United States.

Border arrests

Mr. Trump did not give a time frame for his 240 percent figure, nor did he specify what the number referred to, which may give the misleading impression that border crossings overall have increased threefold.

The figure instead refers to a surge in families attempting to cross at the southwest border. The number of family units apprehended at the border more than tripled from 8,120 in December 2017 to 27,518 in December 2018, overwhelming immigration officials and creating a new humanitarian crisis.

Overall, illegal border crossings have been declining for nearly two decades, and in the 2017 fiscal year, border crossing apprehensions were at their lowest point since 1971. In the 2018 fiscal year, however, annual apprehensions did increase by 30 percent from the previous fiscal year.

Immigrant criminals in Texas

Mr. Trump’s figures are accurate, but they need context. The Texas Department of Public Safety did report that the 186,000 unauthorized immigrants booked into local jails from 2011 to 2018 faced 292,000 charges.

The caveats: These offenses did not necessarily occur during that eight-year time frame. More than half of these charges were uncategorized. And the charges Mr. Trump singled out did not always result in convictions (238 for homicide, 13,559 for assault, 1,689 for sexual assault and 1,280 for weapons).

For comparison, data from the Texas Department of Public Safety shows that some 7.5 million arrests were made from 2010 to 2017 (data for 2018 was not yet available), including 6,161 for murder, 177,000 for aggravated assault, 14,000 for rape and nearly 89,000 for weapons charges. A 2018 study from the libertarian Cato Institute found that in Texas, conviction and arrest rates for illegal immigrants were lower than those for native-born Americans for most crimes.

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