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Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., has defended bringing up illegal immigration and a need for a border wall at a hearing on gun violence.
"Because the wall will help have fewer violent illegal immigrants in this country killing people," Gaetz told CNN host Chris Cuomo during a Feb. 7 interview.
Cuomo challenged his choice, arguing that "the numbers don't match up, and the politics don't match up."
"Do you realize that one out of every five people that the federal government charges with murder is an illegal alien?" Gaetz responded.
In that same interview, Gaetz claimed that the Democratic platform in 1992 said immigrants came to the United States illegally, committed felonies, were deported, and came back to do the same thing. We rated that Mostly True (because it was '96).
But on this murder statistic, Gaetz is wrong.
Rather than present evidence for a broad trend, his office told PolitiFact he was citing a single year's number that came from the U.S. Sentencing Commission. The number for the 2016 fiscal year nearly reflects what Gaetz claimed, though his description was imprecise. The commission’s data is on people sentenced for murder, not just charged with that offense.
The bigger flaw in what Gaetz laid out, however, comes down to cherry-picking. He presented the one-in-five statistic as a trend. But the percentage of "illegal aliens" sentenced for murder in 2016 (17.9 percent of 84 people sentenced) was notably higher than the percentages reported in recent years. For instance, in 2015, "illegal aliens" accounted for 5.5 percent of the 91 people sentenced in federal courts for murder. In 2017, they represented 6.9 percent of the 72 people sentenced.
Worth keeping in mind: Most murder cases are handled at the state level.
"Federal murder sentences constitute an extremely small fraction of murder sentences nationwide," said Richard Rosenfeld, emeritus professor at the department of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri - St. Louis.
Information on the citizenship of people who commit crimes is limited. There is no comprehensive or consistent data on the number of overall murders committed by immigrants in the country illegally.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission data looks at sentences for crimes tried in federal courts. The report lists the primary offenses for which individuals were sentenced (such as murder, fraud, immigration), the total number of people sentenced per offense, and how many of those sentenced were either a U.S. citizen or non-U.S. citizen.
In 2016, 84 people were sentenced in federal courts for murder. Of those, 22.6 percent were non-U.S. citizens.
Not every non-U.S. citizen was in the country illegally. The category includes immigrants who are in the United States legally. An interactive tool breaks down the non-U.S. citizen category to show that "illegal aliens" accounted for 17.9 percent of the 84 people sentenced for murder in 2016.
That’s close to Gaetz's figure. But it’s out of date and not reflective of the longer-term trend.
In fiscal year 2017, there were 72 people sentenced in federal courts for murder. Five of them, or 6.9 percent, were in the United States illegally.
The commission’s interactive tool lists data from 2006 through 2017. In that time period, 2016 had the highest percentage of immigrants in the country illegally sentenced for murder. The average over that 12-year period was 7.85 percent.
A spokesperson for Gaetz did not clarify why he did not use the most recent numbers available, or why sentencing data was used to back a claim about charges.
The commission’s data is on offenders sentenced in a fiscal year. Figures do not include cases initiated but for which no convictions were obtained; offenders convicted for whom no sentences were yet issued; and offenders sentenced but for whom no sentencing documents were submitted to the commission.
Gaetz’s latest claim is similar to another one he made in 2017: He claimed that immigrants in the country illegally made up roughly 3.5 percent of the population in 2014, and "committed over 10 percent of all murders." We rated it Mostly False.
A criminologist then told us that it’s misleading to make assumptions and inferences based on the commission’s data, since it’s specific and limited to federal sentences. Violent offenses are a small subset of the federal caseload.
It’s difficult to determine how many murders are committed by immigrants illegally in the United States. For instance, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program publishes data on murders reported across the country. It has data on the age, sex, race and ethnicity of offenders, but not on their immigration status. The FBI program also does not collect conviction or sentencing information.
Gaetz said, "One out of every five people that the federal government charges with murder is an illegal alien."
Information provided by his office is outdated and does not directly back what he said. He relied on 2016 federal sentencing data that said nearly 20 percent of "illegal aliens" were sentenced for murder that year (out of 84 people sentenced).
The latest numbers available are from 2017, and reflect a much lower percentage. Of 72 people sentenced in 2017, 6.9 percent were "illegal aliens." Federal sentencing data from 2006 through 2017 shows that 7.85 was the average percentage of "illegal aliens" sentenced for murder over that period.
Most murder convictions and sentences happen at the state, not federal level. There isn’t comprehensive national data on crimes committed by immigrants in the country illegally.
The claim is inaccurate. We rate it False.
CNN, Cuomo, Rep. Gaetz have heated exchange on gun violence, Feb. 7, 2019 interview
Email and text exchange, Matt Gaetz's press office, Feb. 14-15, 2019
U.S. Sentencing Commission, Effective use of federal sentencing data, November 2013 presentation; Annual reports and sourcebooks, 2017, Appendix A
PolitiFact, Gaetz misleads in claim about immigrants, crime, Aug. 30, 2017
Email interview, Richard Rosenfeld, emeritus professor at the department of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri - St. Louis, Feb. 18, 2019
Email interview, FBI press office, Holly C. Morris, public affairs specialist, Feb. 19, 2019
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