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New Cato Research Shows That Illegal Immigrants Are Less Likely to Be Convicted of Murder in Texas

Alex Nowrasteh

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Illegal immigrant criminality is a major contentious issue in the debate over immigration policy in the United States and is likely to feature prominently in Thursday’s presidential debate between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump. Cato has published much original research on illegal immigrant criminality over the years because of the importance of this issue. The arrest and indictment of Jose Antonio Ibarra for the murder of Laken Riley is a recent and brutal example of an alleged illegal immigrant killer. This case and those like it are truly awful, and Ibarra, if he murdered Riley, should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. These cases are tragic, but analyzing the broader facts of illegal immigrant criminality is crucial before changing public policy.

In a new Cato Institute policy analysis released today, I examine data from Texas on homicide rates for illegal immigrants, legal immigrants, and native‐​born Americans. Over the ten years from 2013 to 2022, the homicide conviction rate in Texas for illegal immigrants was 2.2 per 100,000, compared to 3.0 per 100,000 for native‐​born Americans and 1.2 per 100,000 legal immigrants.

Accordingly, illegal immigrants were 26 percent less likely than native‐​born Americans to be convicted of homicide, and legal immigrants were 61 percent less likely (Figure 1). This general trend also holds for 2022, where the illegal immigrant homicide conviction rate was 3.1 per 100,000, 1.8 per 100,000 for legal immigrants, and 4.9 per 100,000 for native‐​born Americans (Figure 2).

Those statistics are only for the state of Texas, which uniquely keeps data on the immigration statutes of those arrested and convicted of crimes. Texas is a great state for many reasons (no state income tax, great food, good housing policy, etc.) and for social scientists seeking to understand illegal immigrant criminality. Texas has the second‐​highest illegal immigrant population behind California, shares the longest state border with Mexico, has a reputation for strictly enforcing criminal laws, is governed by Republicans, and doesn’t have any sanctuary jurisdictions.

It’s not certain that the low Texas illegal immigrant crime rates generalize to all other states, and there may be a few states where they have higher rates than native‐​born Americans, but it will likely hold in most states because Texas is an excellent sample.

Crime rates are the best way to judge whether immigrants make the United States a more dangerous country. Ken Cuccinelli, the former attorney general of Virginia, who also served in various capacities at the Department of Homeland Security, submitted written testimony to Congress about the impact of illegal immigration on crime, stating, “Crime rates do not matter, only the raw number of crimes and the harm caused by those crimes.”

Cuccinelli isn’t correct; crime rates are more important. Crime rates are calculated in my new policy analysis by taking the number of crimes committed by a subgroup divided by that subgroup’s population. The quotient is then multiplied by 100,000 to get a rate per 100,000 of the population. This controls for the size of the population and, therefore, allows the reader to compare crime rates between the different groups.

My policy analysis focuses on homicide for two main reasons. First, the Texas crime data are better for homicide. State authorities spend the most resources investigating the immigration statuses of the worst criminals, like those convicted of murder, so there’s less of a chance of an undercount. Second, murder is the worst crime, so understanding how crime‐​prone immigrants are is of paramount importance for estimating their effect on the United States and how to allocate scarce law enforcement resources to maximize public safety. My policy analysis presents the overall conviction and arrest data for all illegal and legal immigrants, but readers should more skeptically interpret those results because Texas state authorities don’t investigate the immigration status of those convicted of lesser crimes as thoroughly.

Lost in the debate over immigrant criminality is that legal immigrants have an exceedingly low homicide conviction rate of 1.2 per 100,000 during the 2013–2022 period. If native‐​born Americans had the same homicide conviction rate as legal immigrants, there would have been about 4,265 fewer homicide convictions in Texas during that period.

Every large population is going to contain some criminals. The relative criminality of these different groups does not affect whether a criminal should be punished or how harshly he should be punished. Even if there were only one murder in the United States each year, that murderer should be severely punished. However, crime rates matter when considering the costs and benefits of different immigration enforcement policies. Illegal immigrants are less likely to be convicted of homicide than native‐​born Americans, and legal immigrants are less so still. The findings here imply that more immigration enforcement will not bring down crime rates.

Besides continuing to arrest, punish, and remove illegal immigrants convicted of crimes, my paper contains another policy recommendation: Every state should copy Texas and start keeping data on the immigration status of those arrested and convicted of crimes. One limitation of my research here is that it is confined entirely to Texas, but illegal immigrants live in every state in the union. Texas is a great sample and it’s not unreasonable to infer that illegal and legal immigrants in most other states typically have a lower homicide and criminal conviction rate based on these data, but the public, policymakers, and residents of other states should be certain. There very well could be states where illegal immigrants have a higher homicide or criminal conviction rate than native‐​born Americans.

From my paper:

The state of Texas should invite representatives from other states’ departments of public safety, criminal justice, and corrections to Austin to show them how to record, maintain, and track the immigration statuses of those arrested, convicted, and incarcerated for crimes. At the same time, or prior to that convening, Texas DPS should invite members of the National Research Council who work on crime and immigration, along with statisticians, social scientists, criminologists, and others with expertise in crime data, to closely examine how Texas DPS records and organizes its data to see whether its methods can be improved to ensure clarity, maximize accuracy, and minimize errors.29 If an invitation from the Texas state government is not forthcoming, other states should take the initiative and ask Texas for guidance.

That policy recommendation isn’t as exciting as those in our other research on immigration, but it’s important to know the facts here.

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