Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson challenged Donald Trump’s label of Mexican immigrants as murderers and rapists, saying they actually follow the law more than U.S. citizens.
In a July 3 interview on CNN’s State of the Union, Johnson spoke with host Brianna Keilar about comments the presumptive Republican nominee has made about Muslims and Mexicans.
Johnson, a former New Mexico governor, said Trump has said things that would disqualify anyone else from running for president. Keilar asked Johnson if he thought Trump was racist.
"When it comes to Mexican immigration and that he would call immigrants from Mexico murderers and rapists look, that’s just not true," Johnson said. "They are more law-abiding than U.S. citizens, and that is a statistic."
We wondered if there really was a statistic to support Johnson’s statement that Mexican immigrants commit fewer crimes than U.S. citizens.
Immigrants up, crime down
Johnson based his comments on data cited in a July 2015 Wall Street Journal opinion piece by Jason L. Riley, a senior fellow at the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute.
Riley’s commentary focused on studies that show immigrants — irrespective of nationality or legal status — "are less likely than the native population to commit violent crimes or to be incarcerated."
Riley points to a July 2015 report by the American Immigration Council, a pro-immigrant nonprofit in Washington. The council analyzed data from the Census’ 2010 American Community Survey and found that about 1.6 percent of all immigrant males (Census does not specify legal status) between 18 and 39 years old were incarcerated, compared to 3.3 percent of the native-born population.
The council also reported 2010 Census data that shows incarceration rates of young, less educated Mexican, Salvadoran and Guatemalan men — which comprise the bulk of the unauthorized population — are "significantly lower" than incarceration rates of native-born young men without a high-school diploma.
Specifically for Mexican men ages 18 to 39, the incarceration rate in 2010 was 2.8 percent, compared to 10.7 percent for native-born men in the same age group, the council’s report said.
Immigrants come to the United States to build better lives for themselves and their children, said Walter A. Ewing, a senior researcher at the American Immigration Council and one of the report’s authors.
"They are very motivated to not blow that opportunity by getting in trouble with the police," he said in an email interview. "This is especially so for unauthorized immigrants, who can be deported at any time for unlawful presence."
And even as the immigrant population increases, crime has gone down, the report said.
Between 1990 and 2013, the foreign-born share of the U.S. population increased from 7.9 percent to 13.1 percent, and the number of unauthorized immigrants went up from 3.5 million to 11.2 million. At the same time, violent crime rate (murder, rape and aggravated assault) decreased 48 percent and property crime rate fell 41 percent, the report said, citing FBI data.
Bianca E. Bersani, an assistant professor and director of the Criminology and Criminal Justice Program at the University of Massachusetts Boston, says her research also shows that crime involvement among foreign-born residents is lower than that of U.S.-born citizens.
It holds true for Mexican immigrants, she said.
"When ethnicity can be distinguished and Mexican immigrants isolated from the group of first-generation immigrants, research continues to find that Mexican immigrants have lower rates of involvement in crime compared to their U.S-born peers," Bersani said.
Recent studies tracking changes over time also found that areas of the country with an increased foreign-born population do not experience corresponding increases in crime, said Bersani.
"The rhetoric of the ‘criminal immigrant’ does not align with the bulk of empirical research," Bersani said.
According to Bersani’s research, while first-generation immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than the native-born population, the second generation (individuals born in the United States to at least one foreign-born parent) more closely resemble patterns of their native-born peers (three or more U.S.-born generations).
"This does not suggest that the second generation is uniquely crime prone, but instead that they are acting in ways that are no different from the rest of the U.S.-born population," Bersani said.
Datasets with information on both crime and immigrant status are rare, Bersani said, though more research and data are becoming available.
The Center for Immigration Studies, which supports stricter immigration policies, in a 2009 study said that overall understanding of immigrants and crime "remains confused" due to lack of data and contrary information.
Unless inmates are identified as immigrant or native-born, incarceration rates are a poor way to measure links between immigrants and crime, the study said.
Deportations of criminal immigrants may also decrease immigrant incarceration rates because many will not return to the United States and commit more crimes, as could be the case with native-born criminals, the CIS report said.
There isn’t exact data on how many undocumented immigrants are currently incarcerated.
Johnson said Mexican immigrants are not "murderers and rapists" but are actually "more law-abiding than U.S. citizens and that is a statistic."
Numerous studies by scholars and partisan groups show that the foreign-born population is less likely to commit crimes than the native-born, and experts say this includes Mexican immigrants.
Researchers agree more data is needed to get a better understanding of immigration and crime, but the information available does not disprove Johnson’s point. We rate Johnson’s statement Mostly True.