FAKE NEWS: The Washington Post Grossly Understates the Crime Rate of Illegal Immigrants

by James D. Agresti


The Washington Post has published a blatant falsehood in support of the claim that illegal immigrants are less likely to commit serious imprisonable crimes than people born in the United States. Furthermore, the Post ignores data from the Census Bureau, Department of Justice, and Homeland Security that proves the polar opposite is true. These straightforward, comprehensive facts reveal that illegal immigrants are much more likely to commit such crimes.

An Innocent Mistake or Deliberate Deception?

In a recent “fact check“ of President Trump, Glenn Kessler, Salvador Rizzo, and Meg Kelly of the Post contend that Trump “exaggerates the link between immigration and crime.” As proof of this, they write that “almost all research shows legal and illegal immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than the native-born population.”

The hyperlink above leads to their supposed evidence, an earlier article by Rizzo that makes a simple but major error. It compares the number of non-citizen immigrants in prison to the total number of immigrants in the United States. This is misleading because non-citizens only account for about half of all immigrants. The other half are immigrants who have become U.S. citizens.

The Post’s mix-up, quoted below, misleadingly compares a subset of immigrants to the larger population of all immigrants:

Excluding five states that did not provide data, state and federal correctional facilities in 2016 housed 1.3 million prisoners, of which 83,556, or 6 percent, were noncitizens, according to the latest BJS [Bureau of Justice Statistics] report. The total immigrant population stood at 43.7 million in 2016, or 13.5 percent, according to Census data.

A comparison of these figures shows that non-citizens are … far below their share of the population when combining both state and federal prisons (6 percent).

According to the Census Bureau’s “Fact Finder” – the same source the Post uses to obtain population data for all immigrants—22.5 million non-citizens lived in the U.S. during 2016, or 7.0% of the U.S. population. This is close to the 6% share of the prison population comprised of non-citizens. It is not “far below” it as the Post claims.

That one percentage point difference evaporates in light of the fact that the BJS report cited by the Post says that “some states likely provided undercounts” of non-citizen prisoners. As the Congressional Research Service reported in 2016: “Until recently, the proportion of non-citizens incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails corresponded closely to that of non-citizens in the U.S. population, but unreported incarceration data since 2013 has hindered such comparisons.”

It’s possible this is just an innocent mistake by the Post, but Just Facts alerted the paper’s head “fact checker” and its corrections editor to this falsehood on Feb.8, 2019. Nearly two months later, the article has not been fixed. Moreover, if the Post corrected this, it would completely undermine the narrative of its fact check.

The Rest of the Story

The Post’sStandards and Ethics“ declare that “no story is fair if it omits facts of major importance or significance.” Yet, its fact check does this four times – and in every case – the omission downplays the crime rates of illegal immigrants.

First, the Post omits the fact that the incarceration rate of non-citizens drastically understates their criminality. This is because the U.S. deports masses of non-citizen criminal convicts every year, thus reducing the number who remain in the country. In the decade from 2006 – 2015, the U.S. deported an average of 150,000 non-citizens per year who were convicted of committing crimes in the United States. This is about equal to the 145,896 non-citizens in adult correctional facilities in 2016. Since most criminals are repeat offenders, this continual mass deportation of non-citizen criminals means that the crime rate of non-citizens who come to the U.S. is much higher than those who remain in the U.S.

Put another way, if the U.S. deported the same number of criminals as its entire prison population every year for a decade, the nation’s crime rate would plummet. This is exactly what it does with non-citizens, and yet, their incarceration rate is about the same as the general U.S. population.

Second, the Post omits the fact that the incarceration rate of illegal immigrants is much higher than that of non-citizens. This is because roughly half of all non-citizens are legal immigrants who must pass a criminal background check in order to immigrate. Hence, these are a select pool of law-abiding people. The federal government doesn’t isolate the incarceration rate of legal non-citizens, but the incarceration rate of immigrant citizens, who must pass a full FBI background check, is 79% lower than the general U.S. population. Mixing legal and illegal non-citizens into a single incarceration rate causes the low crime rates of legal immigrants to obscure the high crime rates of illegal immigrants. Near the end of its fact check, the Post quotes the author of a study who raises this point, but the Post dismisses the study as “an outlier.”

Third, the Post omits the fact that illegal immigrants are more likely than the general population to get away with highly violent crimes like murder. Thus, their relative incarceration rate does not accurately reflect their criminality. This is because illegal immigrants are primarily from Latin America, and murders committed by racial minorities in the U.S. are less likely to be solved. In the minority-dominated sanctuary city of Chicago, for example, the portion of murders that resulted in a suspect being identified and acted upon by the criminal justice system was 17% in 2017, as compared to the nationwide average of 59%.

Fourth, the Post omits the fact that data from the Social Security Administration, IRS, and Government Accountability Office show that most illegal immigrants engage in identity fraud and/or tax evasion. These are federal felonies punishable by up to five years in prison. As California Senate Leader and Democrat Kevin De Leon admitted in 2017, “anyone who has family members who are undocumented knows that almost entirely everybody has secured some sort of false identification.”

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James D. Agresti is the president of Just Facts, a think tank dedicated to publishing rigorously documented facts about public policy issues.
Photo “Washington Post” by Paulo O. CC BY 2.0











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