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Nevada Today

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Undocumented Immigration Up. Crime-Rate Down

Immigrant rights march for amnesty in downtown Los Angeles, California on May Day, 2006. Poster says, “Today we march, tomorrow we vote.” Jonathan McIntosh Wikimedia commons.

Last Saturday afternoon Donald Trump gave the same old song and dance on what he wants his followers to believe: “humanitarian and security crisis on our southern border.”

Trump: “Thousands of children are being exploited by ruthless “coyotes” and vicious cartels and gangs,” he told his television audience, in a lame attempt to cajole House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to cave in and give him $5.7 billion for a southern border wall.

Federal border authorities demonize coyotes as ruthless criminals who kidnap, rape and abandon their clients. But it's more complicated than that. There are, to be sure, bad coyotes who do abuse their clients. But, as in any business, not everyone is the same. John Burentt, NPR, July 2014.

Trump: “Women are sexually assaulted . . .”

Cases of abuses are rarely reported or prosecuted, and data about these crimes is difficult to acquire or assess. "Invisible Victims: Migrants on the Move in Mexico". Amnesty International. 2010.

Trump: “Vast quantities of lethal narcotics of lethal narcotics are flooding through our borders . . . 90% of Heroin comes through the southern boarders . . .”

As Trump once accurately noted, smugglers also attempt to get drugs into the United States using catapults, drones, boats and tunnels. At least 232 tunnels were discovered on U.S. borders from 1990 to January 2017, according to the 2017 DEA report.

Trump: “Illegal immigration strains public services. . . “

Are legal immigrants eligible for federal public benefit programs? Only those with lawful permanent resident (LPR) status, but not until they have resided as a legal resident for five years. LPRs – sometimes referred to as green card holders – do not have full access to all public benefit programs and are subject to limitations before being eligible for federal means-tested benefits, including Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), TANF, SNAP, and SSI. National Immigration Forum: Fact sheet: Immigrants and Public Benefits 

Pelosi put the kibosh on the things he promises: “his proposal is a compilation of several previously rejected initiatives, each of which is unacceptable and in total, do not represent a good faith effort to restore certainty to people’s lives,” she said in a statement.

What do we know about immigrants? According to  University of Wisconsin–Madison sociology professor Michael Light: “Since 1990, the undocumented immigrant population in the United States has tripled. It’s part of the largest wave of immigration the country has ever experienced.” “In that same time, the violent crime rate has halved,” he says. His findings are published in the journal Criminology.

Light and Purdue University sociology graduate student Ty Miller used Wisconsin immigration data from the Center for Migration Studies and the Pew Research Center spanning 1990 to 2014. They compared undocumented immigration rates to an index of violent crimes — homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault — kept by the FBI. They also examined the impact of undocumented immigration on violent victimization rates from the National Crime Victimization Survey.

Light argues that “Latino immigrant communities seem to provide informal social and economic support that insulates their members against alcohol and drug problems and other criminal activity.”

“The idea is, immigrants are driven by the pursuit of education and economic opportunities for themselves or their families,” Light says. “Moreover, migration — especially undocumented migration — requires a lot of motivation and planning. Those are characteristics that aren’t highly correlated with a high crime-prone disposition.”

Light and Miller published a similar study in 2017 showing undocumented immigrants reduce drug and alcohol arrests and deaths, and Light hopes the new findings make for more informed public policy discussion.

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Michael McGreer Mesquite, Nevada
Dr. Michael Manford McGreer is managing editor of and writes on issues that impact public policy.

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