The Truth-O-Meter Says:

"Right now, an employer has more of a chance of getting hit by lightning than be prosecuted for hiring an undocumented worker. That has to change."

Barack Obama on Thursday, November 15th, 2007 in Las Vegas

Lightning strikes, but not like the feds

Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois tried to make the point that enforcement against people who hire undocumented workers has to improve.

But statistics show the feds at least outpace lightning strikes.

Given current data, indictments out of employer investigations happen 4.6 times more often than people get hit by lightning, figured Deborah Rumsey, author of Probability for Dummies and Statistics for Dummies , among other books. Rumsey, a statistics education specialist at Ohio State University, helped review the stats.

"Neither one of these is a common occurrence, but compared to each other, there's a big difference," Rumsey said.

Asked to support his statement, the Obama campaign cited a Washington Post report that showed only three businesses were fined — a more narrow look than prosecutions — for employing illegal immigrants in 2004.

Being fined is indeed rarer than lightning hitting someone.

But based on figures from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the National Weather Service, we find that the change Obama demanded in Thursday's debate already has happened, at least in meteorological terms.

For starters, lightning hits an average of 1,000 to 1,100 people a year, according to the National Weather Service. That would make strikes on people a 1.1-in-303,000 probability, using current U.S. Census population estimates.

Now consider indictments in investigations of employers, which numbered 441 in 2006, according to an annual report of the Office of Immigration Statistics at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Based only on indictments, there was a 5.1-in-303,000 chance an employer would be prosecuted to the point of indictment. That's based on a U.S. Census count of nearly 26.3-million businesses from 2004, the most recent year full data is available.

It should be noted that the number of employers is tough to determine; officials with the IRS and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said they had no data. The Census count is its largest available, with other surveys showing smaller numbers — and even higher chances of indictments against employers.

Given these findings, we rule Obama's statement False.

About this statement:

Published: Friday, November 16th, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

Subjects: Immigration


Las Vegas debate transcript,, Nov. 15, 2007

Interview, Deborah Rumsey, author of Probability for Dummies , fellow of the American Statistical Association, Nov. 16, 2007

Lightning Safety Facts, National Weather Service

Lightning Strike Probabilities, National Lightning Safety Institute

Statistics of U.S. Businesses, U.S. Census, 2004

U.S. Population Estimate, U.S. Census Bureau

"Illegal Hiring is Rarely Penalized," Spencer S. Hsu and Kari Lydersen, Washington Post, June 19, 2006

Written by: David DeCamp
Researched by: John Martin
Edited by: Amy Hollyfield

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