Immigration Common Sense is One Casualty of the Trump Surge

Alan Tonelson |

Americans are getting a great object lesson these days about the problems caused by bombastic and flamboyant figures championing reasonable positions. Their inevitable rhetorical excesses and personal quirks completely overshadow substance.  In the process, they slam minds shut across the political spectrum while worsening polarization even on already emotion-laden issues.

In other words, the firestorm ignited by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s remarks about crime and Mexican immigrants has moved the nation farther away from recognizing that U.S. immigration policy is needlessly jeopardizing public safety – and from even thinking clearly about the subject.

Supporters of bigger legal immigration inflows (just FYI, the nation already officially admits about one million newcomers each year) have fought back withdata purporting to show that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans, and they readily point to polls reporting that large majorities of the public view even illegal immigrants as simply “honest people trying to get ahead.”

But if you think these findings settle the matter, you don’t even need to be reminded of horrific individual events like the alleged murder of San Franciscan Kathryn Steinle last month by a convicted and repeatedly deported illegal alien felon just released from custody by that municipality’s Sanctuary City policy despite federal requests to keep him locked up. Instead, you should read the following analyses by Norman Matloff and by Steven A. Camarota, immigration policy critics whose reasoned arguments deserved much more national attention.

Matloff, a University of California, Davis computer science professor, has long specialized in the study of (legal) “high tech” immigrants and their effects on the jobs and wages of their native-born counterparts. But his July 7 post makes a seminal political and policy point on immigrants and crime. As Matloff explains, whatever the data on immigrant crime rates versus native-born crime rates (and, I think he would agree, the more relevant data on illegal immigrant crime rates versus native-born), there’s another figure that should matter at least as much to policymakers – and surely does to the public. It’s the figure of 175,000 that describes the number of foreign nationals in American prisons.

In his view, it’s a figure that points to a major failure of U.S. immigration policy – somehow, it has resulted in the admission of at least 175,000 people (remember, the number leaves out the immigrant criminals still roaming free) who had endangered the rest of the population. Are immigration enthusiasts really arguing that that’s a record or performance that can’t or mustn’t be improved upon?

Camarota, Research Director for the Center for Immigration Studies, focuses on a different but equally important issue – the weaknesses of the crime studies themselves. They suffer, he explains in a July 23 blog, from a big apples and oranges problem. That is, the studies compare populations that can’t legitimately be compared.

To begin with, Camarota suggests (but I wish had discussed in more detail), “immigrants” form a group that includes huge numbers of individuals who simply don’t commit many crimes in the first place – those admitted, like the high tech immigrants, on “merit-based” grounds. Similarly, the native-born population includes groups, like African-American men, whose crime rates are unusually high.

Controlling for these and other pertinent factors, Camarota writes, does indeed reveal a relatively high crime rate for male Mexican-born immigrants aged 18-40 and native-born men of Mexican ancestry combined. The author adds that the Census Bureau, which generates the raw numbers, has historically experienced trouble distinguishing native-born from immigrant inmates in the nation’s prisons – the sample it uses for assessing crime rates.

At the same time, Camarota elaborates on an important policy point made in brief by Matloff. Major immigration policy failures are revealed even by statistically invalid comparisons showing roughly similar crime rates for immigrants and the native-born. Immigration, he writes, “is supposed to benefit our country. Therefore the goal of policy is to select immigrants that have much lower crime rates than natives, not rates that are somewhat higher or even somewhat lower than natives’.”

There’s no doubt that the Trump phenomenon is obscuring these insights – even as it has greatly elevated immigration’s public profile. But the nation’s Mainstream Media and politicians also deserve lots of blame. Rather than bother to learn something useful that might eliminate unmistakable and frankly dangerous shortcomings in the nation’s immigration policy, they’d clearly rather bash The Donald.

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