Recently, Donald Trump's comments about immigrants and crime have been getting a lot of attention in the media. Organizations with clear liberal agendas have been quick to argue that Trump's views are totality divorced from reality. For instance, Politifact recently released a piece in which they rated Trump's claim that there are hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants in American prisons “mostly false”. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate that Politifact's coverage of Trump's comments was based on a sophomoric understanding of the relevant data and that, in reality, Trump was probably right.
The first source that Politifact uses to establish that there are less than 200,000 illegal immigrants in American prisons is data from the Department of Justice which shows that at the end of 2013 there were around 90,000 non citizens in state and federal prisons. What Politifact fails to mention about this data is that citizenship status was determined by self report. In other words, government officials went to prisoners, who know that non citizens in prison have a high risk of being deported, and simply asked them whether or not they were citizens. There is an obvious incentive for non citizen prisoners to lie and claim that they are prisoners and so this data cannot be trusted.
Politifact also refers to a 2007 study carried out by the Immigration Policy Center which found that foreign born Mexicans had much lower incarceration rates than native born Mexicans as well as Whites. This claim was based on data from the 2000 Census. The 2000 Census had two methods for determining whether or not a prisoner was an immigrant. First, they asked them. As I've already explained, this method is highly problematic and no doubt under-estimates the number of immigrants in prison. But the majority of prisoners actually left the immigrant question on the Census form blank. Rather than exclude this data from their analysis, when the answer was left blank the Census made an “educated guess” about whether or not the prisoner was an immigrant based on other data from the form. As pointed out in a report by the Center for Immigration Studies, the unreliability of these Census estimates is clearly demonstrated by the fact that, according to the census, from 1990 to 2000 the absolute number of immigrants in prison fell by 28% even though the number of immigrants in the country grew by 60% and between 2000 and 2007 the number of immigrants in prison grew by 128% even though the number of immigrants in the country only grew by 20%. In other words, the Census estimates seem to imply that the number of immigrants in prison doesn't change in concordance with the number of immigrants in the country and that is highly implausible. It's also worth noting that the 2007 census data shows immigrants having a higher incarceration rate than native whites do. So if you do accept census data as reliable then perhaps you should conclude that the IPC study is simply outdated and doesn't reflect the criminal nature of modern immigrants.
Politifact also covers a 2011 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) which reported that in 2009 immigrants were put in American prisons and jails about 296,000 times. Politifact correctly points out that this doesn't necessarily mean that more than 200,000 immigrants committed a crime since a single immigrant could go to jail multiple times in a single year. However, Politifact gives no reason to think that immigrant criminals do in fact tend to go to jail multiple times each year. They also completely misunderstand the data that the GAO report is using. The report is based on a program called the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP) which allows the federal government to fund the imprisonment of criminal immigrants in federal prisons and to reimburse state governments for their imprisonment of criminal immigrants. The previously quoted number, 296,000, is the number of immigrant incarcerations that the federal government paid for through SCAAP in 2009. However, the program does not pay for all illegal immigrant incarcerations. This is for two reasons. First, in-order for state governments to apply for reimbursement they must know that the prisoner is an immigrant. The most common method they use to determine this is, once again, to simply ask prisoners whether or not they are illegal immigrants. As has been noted twice already, this method is not reliable. Secondly, an illegal immigrant must be in jail for at least 1 felony or 2 misdemeanors in-order for their incarceration to be subject to reimbursement. Because of these two limitations, we can be sure that SCAAP under-estimates how many times illegal immigrants are incarcerated each year.
Another data source Politifact looks at is the number of criminal immigrants that are deported each year. In 2014 there were 178,000 criminal aliens deported. This would seem to suggest that there are more than 200,000 criminal aliens in the country each year. However, Politifact argues, many of these “criminal aliens” are criminals only because they broke immigration laws. This is a fair point, but Politifact neglects to mention that a report that they cite in this very article notes that between 1998 and 2007 there were 816,000 criminal aliens deported excluding ones deported for working or living here illegally. This averages to 82,000 per year. Given that the average stay in a prison is several years, it seems fair to assume that if these immigrants were made to stay in American prisons instead of being deported then there would be more than 200,000 illegal immigrants in our prisons even if we accept, for the sake of argument, the DOJ's extremely low estimate of the number of illegal immigrants that are currently incarcerated (90,000).
Unsurprisingly, in their article Polifact completely ignores the reports issued by Homeland Security's Secure Communities Program which is by far the best source we have on immigrant crime numbers. For the last few years, via the Secure Communities Program, anytime someone is arrested their fingerprints are sent to the DHS which then checks to see if their fingerprints match the fingerprints of any known immigrants in their database. Obviously, this program will under-estimate the number of times that illegal immigrants are arrested because many illegal immigrants will not have their fingerprints registered with the DHS. But a large proportion of them will and this method is clearly better than just asking whether or not someone in jail is an immigrant. Moreover, unlike SCAAP, Secure Communities covers the entire country. The most recent numbers from Secure Communities show that by August immigrants had been arrested 503,000 times in 2014. Given how large this number is, and the fact that we know it is lower than the true number, it seems very safe to say that more than 200,000 non citizens went through our prison/jail system last year. That being said, not all non citizens are illegal aliens. So it is possible, though I think improbable, that less than 200,000 illegal immigrants were arrested in 2014.
Politifact also failed to cover the Homeland Security report that Trump based his claim on. They claimed they couldn't find the report, yet, somehow, journalists at other sites have had no problem locating the document. In it, Homeland Security reports that there are currently 347,000 criminal immigrants in the united states. Now, to be fair, Trump seems to have misunderstood this number. He thought it referred to the number of criminal immigrants in prison. It's actually a much scarier statistic than that because most of these criminal immigrants are in America but are not in prison. They are just roaming the streets. None the less, the Secure Communities data covered above indicates that Trump was correct, even if he mistook this document as saying something more innocuous than what it actually states.
Politifact wasn't content to throw around sloppy data. They also had to appeal to an imaginary consensus. They wrote “every expert we polled said there is a consensus among scholars that undocumented immigrants are not more likely to commit crimes than U.S. Citizens.” To get an idea of what their panel of “experts” looked like consider this: they quote only one criminologist in the whole piece and his name, of course, is Ramiro Martinez. This claim is also bizarre since Politifact's own piece concludes that “the bottom line on Trump’s specific claim is that there’s no definitive number, or even a good ballpark figure, of how many illegal immigrants are currently incarcerated”. Politifact's stance thus seems to be that on the one hand Science knows that illegal immigrants aren't any more criminal than the rest of us but on the other hand no one has any idea what the incarceration rate of illegal immigrants is.
After establishing this "consensus", Politifact advises its readers “If you’re curious, the May 2014 issue of Criminology and Public Policy has a good roundup of the latest research”. This is a truly odd recommendation for two reasons. First, the section of that journal on immigration and crime is about whether or not a particular program lowers crime rates by aiding in the deportation of illegal immigrants. It is not directly concerned with estimating the crime rate of illegal immigrants nor does it provide a general overview of the “latest research”. Secondly, the program that these papers are about is the Secure Communities Program! This is the only major program that tracks immigrant crime that Politifact's article completely ignored in-spite of the fact that it provided the strongest evidence in-favor of Trump's claim.
In conclusion, Politifact ignored the basis of Trump's claim and instead focused on much weaker evidence. Key problems with said evidence included using self report to determine if prisoners were illegal immigrants, failing to tell readers that SCAAP doesn't cover all incarcerated illegal immigrants, and ignoring deportation statistics that were readily available to them. They topped all this off with an appeal to a bullshit consensus that is contradicted by their own findings. If we look at the Secure Communities data, which is the best data available, it seems that Trump was probably right about the number of illegal immigrants in our jails and prisons. Moreover, the data Trump's claim was based on makes it clear that there are even more criminal immigrants running around our streets. Politifact's misuse of data, lies by omission, and appeals to a fake consensus, serve to remind us that their pretense at being a fact checking organization is merely a cover and that they are actually just one among countless leftist sites fighting reality to preserve left wing narratives.