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Miriam Valverde
By Miriam Valverde November 3, 2016

Trump leaves out context in claim about immigrants and crime

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has emphasized his promise to deport criminals living in the United States illegally with just a few days left before the election.

In recent rallies in the swing states of Florida, North Carolina and Ohio, he recounted how Americans have been murdered by undocumented immigrants with criminal records.

"Thousands of Americans have been killed by illegal immigrants," Trump said Oct. 27 in Springfield, Ohio.

He offered a range of anecdotes in different cities. In Springfield, Trump mentioned a 90-year-old Minnesota farmer "brutally beaten by illegal immigrants and left to bleed to death in his home." In Kinston, N.C., Trump told the story of a 21-year-old "viciously murdered in cold blood, shot point blank by an illegal immigrant with a long and vicious criminal record." In Tallahassee, Fla., Trump spoke about a 25-year-old shot dead by a man who had been deported four times and "had a lengthy criminal record."

We asked Trump’s campaign for more details, wondering if the thousands of killings referred to specific years or regions. We did not get a response.

We decided to look into the statement given the key role immigration has played this election season.

Lack of data

Immigration experts told us Trump’s statement is so vague it is bound to be true.

Without time or geographic parameters, the statement is just as accurate as saying "thousands of Americans have been killed by men," said Charis E. Kubrin, a criminology professor at University of California, Irvine.

The challenge in finding concrete numbers is due to a shortfall of data. There is no national database or study tracking how many people have been killed by undocumented immigrants or the nationality of the victims.

About 11.1 million unauthorized immigrants accounted for about 3.5 percent of the total national population in 2014, according to Pew Research Center. Certainly some undocumented immigrants do commit violent crimes.

"The rate of murder may be lower or higher than other groups, but when we are talking about people, violent crime is never zero," said Steven Camarota, director of research at Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank favoring strict immigration policies. "By the same token it cannot be thousands every year. But adding up a few years then it has to be in the ‘thousands.’ There are a lot of murders in America and there are a lot illegal immigrants, so the statement has to be true."

Overall, there are about 16,000 murders and 10,000 drunk driving deaths a year (the drunk driver is the person killed more than 60 percent of the time), Camarota said.

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Research on crime activity

At his rallies, Trump portrays a picture of undocumented immigrants as a strong force of violent crime.

Among the examples he offers is the fatal shooting of 32-year-old Kate Steinle on a San Francisco pier in July 2015. Authorities said her killer was an immigrant in the country illegally who had been ordered deported five times.

Some killings highlighted by Trump’s campaign involved drunk driving incidents. Others went back more than a decade, according to a McClatchy review.

McClatchy found that one of the killings Trump has mentioned dates back to 1990 and involved a man who was not in the country illegally, but a legal refugee originally from Vietnam. The man he shot, a police officer in California, ended up a paraplegic and died of cancer 12 years after being shot, McClatchy reported.

While Trump’s discourse suggests waves of immigrants equals violence, scholars say studies don’t substantiate that message.

Research on immigrants and crime finds that immigrants are not more likely than U.S.-born individuals to take part in crime, said Christopher P. Salas-Wright, an assistant professor at Boston University’s School of Social Work.

"Again and again, we see evidence that they are not," Salas-Wright said. "In fact, it’s the opposite."

Studies show that for the most part, people who migrate are a self-selecting group who want to better their lives, provide for their families back in their home countries and who don’t want to risk getting in trouble with the law, said Kubrin, the criminology professor at University of California, Irvine.

The American Immigration Council, a pro-immigrant nonprofit, analyzed data from the Census’ 2010 American Community Survey and found that about 1.6 percent of immigrant males between 18 and 39 years old were incarcerated, compared to 3.3 percent of the native-born population in that same age group. (The Census does not specify legal status.)

Our ruling

Trump said, "Thousands of Americans have been killed by illegal immigrants."

Trump puts no timeframe on his comment, leaving his audience to fill in the blanks. In reality, there is no solid data for homicides committed by people here illegally. His implicit suggestion is that people should fear illegal immigrants more than citizens, and we don't see evidence for that. Research shows immigrants are less likely to engage in criminal behavior than the native-born population.

However, like the legal U.S. population, some of the country's more than 11 million undocumented immigrants have committed murders. Trump’s statement was open-ended enough that we rate it Half True.

Our Sources

CQ, transcripts of Donald Trump rally speeches in Ohio, North Carolina, Florida, Oct. 25-27, 2016

C-SPAN, Presidential Candidate Donald Trump Rally in Springfield, Ohio, Oct. 27, 2016

C-SPAN, Presidential Candidate Donald Trump Rally in Kinston, North Carolina, Oct. 26, 2016

C-SPAN, Donald Trump Campaign Rally in Tallahassee, Florida, Oct, 25, 2016

Pew Research Center, 5 facts about Trump supporters’ views of immigration, Aug. 25, 2016

Pew Research Center, Overall Number of U.S. Unauthorized Immigrants Holds Steady Since 2009, Sept. 20, 2016

Email interview, Charis E. Kubrin, a criminology professor at University of California, Irvine, Oct. 28, 2016

Email interview, Christopher P. Salas-Wright, an assistant professor at Boston University’s School of Social Work, Oct. 28, 2016

Email interview, Steven Camarota, director of research at Center for Immigration Studies, Oct. 28, 2016

Center for Immigration Studies, Immigration and Crime: Assessing a Conflicted Issue, November 2009

PolitiFact, Trump immigration claim has no data to back it up, July 6, 2015

PolitiFact, Who were the victims of illegal immigrants Trump named at the RNC?, July 21, 2016

PolitiFact, Libertarian candidate says Mexican immigrants more law-abiding than U.S. citizens, July 14, 2016

The Boston Globe, Criminal immigrants reoffend at higher rates than ICE has suggested, June 4, 2016

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, data on homicides

NHTSA, Alcohol-Impaired Driving, 2014 data

McClatchy, What’s the evidence of an immigrant crime wave in California?, Oct. 27, 2016

American Immigration Council, The Criminalization of Immigration in the United States, July 13, 2015

Star-Telegram, Immigrants are not a crime problem, July 28, 2014

Justice Quarterly, An Examination of First and Second Generation Immigrant Offending Trajectories, Feb 16, 2012

Wiley Online Library, Criminology & Public Policy

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Trump leaves out context in claim about immigrants and crime

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