Crime reporters and criminologists say President Donald Trump’s new federal office devoted to crimes committed by immigrants is unnecessary and that creating such an entity is misleading since foreign-born residents actually commit fewer crimes than most native citizens.
They also urged journalists covering the issue and the president’s claims that immigrant crime is a major issue to go beyond just reporting Trump’s anecdotal allegations and present the data that continue to prove his theories wrong.
During his Tuesday address to Congress, Trump announced that his administration is creating “an office to serve American victims,” dubbed VOICE (Victims Of Immigration Crime Engagement). He announced the new office while claiming that cracking down on immigration will “make our communities safer” and characterizing those who will be deported as “gang members, drug dealers and criminals that threaten our communities and prey on our very innocent citizens.”
He punctuated his claims by inviting several guests impacted by crimes committed by undocumented immigrants to attend the speech.
But those who have covered and researched crime say Trump's approach to the issue wrongly paints immigrants broadly as criminals when the facts don't support that generalization.
“The general picture, as we have noted many times, is that immigrants commit fewer crimes than nonimmigrants and that is well-documented,” said Ted Gest, co-founder of Criminal Justice Journalists and a former crime reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and U.S. News & World Report. “He is obviously cherry-picking these cases where they have committed crimes.”
“He has made many more misstatements on crime, through the whole campaign, and it seems to me that, like a lot of people, he tries to pick out things that favor his views,” said Gest, who is also the author of the books Crime and Politics: Big Government's Erratic Campaign for Law and Order and Understanding Crime and Justice Statistics (the latter a guide for journalists written with Daniel Lathrop). “I cannot understand myself how he can keep making these misstatements.”
Gest urged reporters on the story to “point out the total picture. I don’t know that a lot of journalists know that.”
David J. Krajicek, another board member of Criminal Justice Journalists and a crime reporter since the 1970s -- whose work includes writing for the New York Daily News -- echoed Gest’s view.
“It’s statistically not true that immigrants commit more crimes than legal native residents of the U.S.,” he said. “I think journalists are having some difficulty trying to report the facts that countermand the many, many assertions that [Trump] and [Attorney General] Jeff Sessions are making about crime.”
Krajicek said one of the problems with Trump's claims about immigrants and crime is that the far-right media pick them up without verifying that they're true.
“We are living in a world where there are two media echo chambers,” he said. “Fox News, Breitbart and the like, and those of us who have a broader diet of news.”
He said reporters should “always be weary of policy that is made by anecdote. You can go out and find an anecdote to fit any policy narrative that you like. I hope that journalists ask the question of whether it is based in fact or just the worst-case example.”
Marisa Lagos, a criminal justice reporter at KQED Public Radio and TV in San Francisco, said that “there’s no evidence that shows immigrants commit as much crime as citizens.”
Her advice to reporters on the story: “Remind folks that the immigration system is a civil system, not a criminal system. Given the data and research, it is a dangerous narrative that there is more crime perpetrated by people who are immigrants, and we know it is not true.”
James Lynch, president of the American Society of Criminology and a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Maryland, also said Trump’s plan misrepresents the truth.
“The work I’ve done on immigrants and crime is pretty clear. … By and large the evidence in the last 20 years is that they have lower incidences of crime compared to the public at large,” Lynch said. “The immigrant population does nothing but good -- they pay taxes, they do the work. It is pretty clear that immigrants are a positive force and a very low production of crime on their part.”
Asked how the media should cover the story, he said, “They should do due diligence. … I would be skeptical of anything that comes out of a political speech.”
Christina DeJong, an associate professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University, said one of the reasons for the lower crime rate among immigrants is that many came to the U.S. for a better life, leaving behind persecution or economic problems.
“When immigration goes up, crime goes down,” she said. “The reason that most immigrants end up in jail is related to their immigration status, not some other crime. They tend to come here looking for safety.”
Mai Fernandez, executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, said Trump’s new office is unnecessary because victims already have many options.
“I’m not really sure how this office is going to help victims of immigrant crime,” she said. “If someone is attacked, is hurt, is robbed by someone who is undocumented, they go to the police. If it evolves to federal crime, they go to the FBI.”
She also said there is already a federal Office for Victims of Crime at the Department of Justice.
“I don’t understand the need,” Fernandez added. “If you are a victim of a crime, you are a victim regardless of who the perpetrator is.”
She also urged reporters to take into account all of the data when reporting on the issue:
“There is no real data to say this is an enormous problem. You are taking resources that don’t need to be placed there. I have not seen data that says there is an overrepresentation of victims of crime by immigrants.”