The 'Migrant Crime' Wave, Debunked

Plus, an AI-generated version of the same article


Joanna Andreasson/DALL-E4

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"The United States is being overrun by the Biden migrant crime," said former President Donald Trump during a visit to the U.S.-Mexico border in February. "It's a new form of vicious violation to our country."

Trump's remarks came at a tense moment in the nation's sentiment toward immigration. Over half of Americans surveyed by the Pew Research Center in February said that "the large number of migrants seeking to enter the country leads to more crime." The much-publicized murder of Georgia college student Laken Riley—for which a Venezuelan illegal immigrant, José Antonio Ibarra, was charged—helped spark a media firestorm.

"Over the past month, Fox News hosts, guests and video clips have mentioned 'migrant crime' nearly 90 times, more than half of those in the past 10 days," reported The Washington Post's Philip Bump in late February. Other right-of-center media outlets echoed that tenor.

Some undocumented immigrants have committed atrocious crimes, but there are many reasons to doubt that recent incidents prove America is suffering a surging migrant crime wave.

Crime is actually down in the cities that received the most migrants as a result of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's busing operations. "Overall crime is down year over year in Philadelphia, Chicago, Denver, New York and Los Angeles," NBC reported.

"We don't have real-time data, but the partial crime data that exist for this year show consistent declines in major crimes in major cities," concurs David J. Bier, director of immigration studies at the Cato Institute. "The most significant crime spike in recent years occurred in 2020—when illegal immigration was historically low until the end of the year."

This aligns with historic trends. In 2015, the Migration Policy Institute found that undocumented immigrants have a lower rate of felony convictions than the overall U.S. population does. Criminologists Graham Ousey and Charis Kubrin, going off of "more than two decades of research on immigration and crime," concluded that "communities with more immigration tend to have less crime, especially violent crimes like homicide," wrote The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler.

Alex Nowrasteh, vice president for economic and social policy studies at Cato, found that illegal immigrants have a lower homicide conviction rate in Texas than native-born Americans do. "Few people are murderers, and illegal immigrants are statistically less likely to be murderers," wrote Nowrasteh. "We should understand that more enforcement of immigration laws will not reduce homicide rates."

Some politicians still think that "migrant crime" is such a problem that the government should crack down on legal pathways to residency for the country's undocumented population. "How many more innocent victims must be harmed," Trump asked in a video posted to Truth Social in February, "until we stop this invasion….and remove these illegal alien criminals from our country?"

Cracking down on undocumented immigrants might appeal to the emotions sparked by high-profile crimes. But academic research and crime statistics suggest it won't actually change the crime rates.

Illustration: Joanna Andreasson/DALL-E4
(Illustration: Joanna Andreasson/DALL-E4)
  • What we asked for:
    Illustration showing migrant crime wave but that data tell a different story
  • What DALL-E says it gave us:
    The illustration captures the contrast between the sensationalized narrative of a "Migrant Crime Wave" and the reality as shown by data. On one side, it depicts the exaggerated notion of chaos and crime, while the other side reveals a peaceful community supported by statistical evidence of decreasing crime rates and harmonious coexistence.

Migrant Crime Wave? Data Tells a Different Story

Reason asked ChatGPT-4 to write an article about the same topic as the human-written article above. All AI-generated text is shown in blue. Read more about what we asked for.
By ChatGPT-4

In the wake of Laken Riley's tragic murder, allegedly committed by Jose Antonio Ibarra, a Venezuelan immigrant who entered the U.S. illegally, political responses have reignited fiery debates around immigration and crime. Former President Donald Trump's visit to Eagle Pass, Texas, encapsulated this sentiment starkly: "The United States is being overrun by the Biden migrant crime. It's a new form of vicious violation to our country," he declared. Yet, a closer examination of comprehensive data and studies challenges the narrative of a sweeping "migrant crime wave."

Contrary to popular belief, recent research offers a different perspective on the relationship between immigration and crime. A detailed analysis by the Texas Department of Public Safety (2012-2018) revealed that undocumented immigrants have substantially lower crime rates compared to their native-born counterparts. Specifically, U.S.-born citizens were found to be over twice as likely to be arrested for violent crimes, suggesting a disconnect between public perception and reality​​.

Further evidence from a Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR) study emphasizes this point, showing that immigrants are significantly less likely to be incarcerated than U.S.-born individuals. In fact, according to SIEPR and additional research from the Cato Institute, immigrants today are about 30 percent less likely to be incarcerated than their U.S.-born white counterparts and even less so when compared to the broader U.S.-born population​​​​.

The narrative of immigrant-induced crime fails to hold up under scrutiny. Data from the University of Wisconsin–Madison underscores that undocumented immigrants are much less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans, challenging the rationale behind claims of a migrant crime wave​​.

The politicization of such incidents, while understandable from an emotional standpoint, risks overshadowing the nuanced realities of immigrant contributions to society. The vast majority of immigrants, documented or otherwise, come seeking better opportunities, contributing to the United States economically, culturally, and socially. Allowing isolated incidents to color perceptions of an entire demographic not only distorts the truth but also undermines the foundational principles of fairness and justice.

As the debate over immigration and crime continues, it's crucial to anchor our discussions in facts rather than fear. The evidence is clear: immigrants are far from the primary drivers of crime in the United States. Acknowledging this truth is a step toward more reasoned and productive conversations about immigration policy and the value of immigrant communities across the nation.

CHATGPT-4 is a subscription-supported large language model developed by OpenAI, an AI research organization. 

  • What we asked for:
    "I'm writing an article about the myth of a crime wave in the U.S. committed by migrants. Can you provide me with some helpful studies and data points that I can use in the piece?"
  • What ChatGPT-4 gave us:
    1. Texas Department of Public Safety Analysis (2012-2018)
    2. Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR) Study
    3. Cato Institute Analysis
    4. University of Wisconsin–Madison Study (2012-2018)
  • What we provided:
    1. A lede: "The news hook for this article is the political response to the murder of Laken Riley, (allegedly) committed by Jose Antonio Ibarra, a Venezuelan man who immigrated to the U.S. illegally."
    2. A quote from Donald Trump
    3. Writing samples for analysis and replication: Two previous articles by Fiona Harrigan for the TOPICS section of Reason, "Are U.S. Strikes on Houthis Constitutional?" (May 2024) and "America's Immigrant Brain Drain" (October 2023).