Most ICE Detainees Aren't Criminals, Report Reveals

As if we needed any more evidence that the vast majority of undocumented immigrants aren't bringing crime into the country.


Tina Burch/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Immigration hardliners would have us believe that letting undocumented immigrants into the country leads to more crime.

Democrats "want to have illegal immigrants pouring into our country, bringing with them crime, tremendous amounts of crime," President Donald Trump said in January. That claim was nothing new. Announcing his candidacy in June 2015, he infamously asserted that Mexican immigrants are "bringing drugs" and "crime" into the nation.

But there's little evidence to suggest that undocumented immigrants are more prone to crime. In fact, according to a report released Tuesday by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, the majority of individuals detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have never been convicted of a crime. And even the ones who have are mostly low-level offenders.

TRAC's report, which is based off ICE data, notes that 44,435 people were in ICE custody at the end of June. (For comparison, that's up about 14 percent from 39,082 at the end of the 2015 fiscal year.)

Fifty-eight percent—25,920—of ICE's 44,435 detainees had never been convicted of a crime. An additional 21 percent, or 9,358, had Level 3 convictions on their record. According to ICE's standard operating procedures, Level 3 is the lowest classification of crime.

TRAC also noted which types of convictions were the most common:

For those who had been convicted, the most frequent crime was illegal entry (a misdemeanor), followed by driving under the influence of alcohol. Conviction for a miscellaneous assault was third, and a simple traffic offense was the fourth most frequent offense.

Less than 16 percent of ICE detainees—9,358—had ever been convicted of Level 1 offenses (homicide, kidnapping, sexual assault, weapons-related crimes, etc.). Five percent—2,253—of detainees were convicted of Level 2 crimes like burglary, larceny, fraud, and traffic violations.

The new data is not particularly surprising. ICE deported more than 220,000 people in the 2017 fiscal year, most of whom were not exactly hardened criminals. According to TRAC, 79,270 had no criminal convictions. Illegal entry or reentry into the U.S. was the most serious offense for an additional 35,000.

Trump, for his part, has pledged to go after the "bad hombres." But while he and other conservatives focus on high-profile crimes committed by illegal immigrants (like the murder of Mollie Tibbetts), these sorts of tragedies do not represent the behavior of most undocument immigrants.

As Reason's Ronald Bailey has pointed out on several occasions, research shows that immigrants, including those in the country illegally, are actually less likely to commit crimes than American citizens. Plus, the benefits of both legal and illegal immigration generally far outweigh the costs.