Donald Trump may be a blowhard, but he’s raising a legitimate point about immigration and crime, writes David Frum in the Atlantic. “In their determination to quell Trump’s overheated rhetoric,” warns Frum, “Trump’s critics risk straying into an opposite and also dangerous error: denial of important facts that matter to many voters, but that awkwardly challenge the elite consensus on immigration policy.” (Is New York's Archbishop Timothy Dolan part of that “elite” ? He took offense to Trump's rhetoric with a column in the Daily News on Wednesday, writing “as a Catholic, I take seriously the Bible’s teaching that we are to welcome the stranger.... As an American, I take equally seriously the great invitation and promise of Lady Liberty.” )
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat also sees anti-elitism as a reason for the casino king’s rise in the polls (with Trump, “you also don’t get an ideologically-correct answer about who’s to blame” for various domestic and foreign crises). As for immigration, Douthat writes, it’s “the place on the policy map where right-leaning Americans, G.O.P. and independent, have good reasons to trust almost none of the other candidates lining up and asking for their votes.”
On Wednesday, Trump asked for a lot of trust from voters. When asked how he could locate and deport more than 11 million undocumented immigrants (and then let “the good ones” back in), he simply told CNN, “It’s feasible if you know how to manage. Politicians don’t know how to manage.”
Frum’s piece in the Atlantic is a cheat sheet for candidates who want to go after the anti-immigration vote with more finesse than Trump, who claimed that Mexico is taking advantage of our open borders (“They’re laughing at us, at our stupidity”) in his announcement speech.
First, there is a tragedy. Frum cites the murder of Kathryn Steinle, shot by an undocumented immigrant in a tourist area of San Francisco on July 1. As the Washington Post reports, “Her accused killer, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, has seven felony convictions since 1991 and has been deported five times from the United States to Mexico.” Trump has said the murder proves the need for a “wall” between the U.S. and Mexico. (“This senseless and totally preventable act of violence committed by an illegal immigrant is yet another example of why we must secure our border immediately,” he said earlier this month.)
“Leading politicians” are treating Steinle’s murder as “something aberrational,” Frum writes. Hillary Clinton, for example, said that the city of San Francisco erred by not acting to deport Lopez-Sanchez, despite warnings from the Department of Homeland Security that he was dangerous. (San Francisco is one of more than 200 “sanctuary” jurisdictions that refuse to routinely cooperate with federal officials in carrying out deportations, and the Republican-controlled U.S. House responded to the Steinle murder by advancing a bill to penalize such states, cities, and counties with the loss of federal funds. A Democratic congressman called the legislation “the Donald Trump Act.”) Jeb Bush agreed that “the system broke down” in San Francisco. Referring to Trump’s remarks on the Steinle case, he added, “I don’t think it’s appropriate as a potential president to prey on that fear.”
How many crimes are too much?
Frum isn’t buying it: “The system didn’t break down for Steinle. It functioned as it all too often does.” But the definition of “often” is hard to pin down. Frum gives a lot of numbers to support the idea that “by any definition, unauthorized immigrants commit a lot of crimes.” For example: 25,000 “undocumented immigrants serving sentences for homicide.” That’s from a 2011 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and it actually refers to arrests of “aliens” (which include both legal and undocumented immigrants). Twenty-five thousand is a lot—and the estimate may be low, since the GAO had limited access to records in state prison systems—but I don’t know how to put the number in the context of the 25.3 million non-citizens that the GAO estimated were living in the U.S. at the time.
Frum also writes, “After years of welcome decline, crime rates are rising in immigration hubs including Houston, Milwaukee, Phoenix, and San Diego.” This makes no sense. For one thing, Frum is cherry-picking cities. Milwaukee has few foreign-born citizens for a city of its size (only 9 percent of its total population); it’s not an immigration “hub” like the other cities mentioned, or like Chicago or San Francisco. Also, the immigrants in those cities didn’t all arrive within the past two years, so how could they be responsible for a one-year spike in crime? And if you follow Frum’s links for the news stories about rising crime rates, you’ll find that none of them mention immigration as a possible cause. Frum’s alleged statistic doesn’t rise to the level of vaccines-cause-autism scientific rigor.
Crime rates among the foreign-born living in the U.S. are actually lower than among people born here. But Frum points to evidence that the children of immigrants “offend at rates substantially higher than their parents.” His source is a 2013 story from the Pew Research Bureau, and he uses it to conclude, “Because the children of recent immigrants account for so much of U.S. population growth, higher immigration of groups with higher crime rates must drive crime levels higher than they otherwise would have been. That’s just arithmetic.” But the Pew story says that “crime rates among second-generation immigrants is virtually identical to the rate among native-born Americans across the most crime-prone years.” Identical, not higher.
So it doesn’t follow that more immigration would lead to more crime, and there’s no basis for Frum’s assertion that “Under different immigration rules, the average U.S. crime rate might be lower than it is today—and probably considerably lower than it will be in future.” He’s using sleight of hand to imply that the children of immigrants are especially crime-prone because they offend at higher rates than their parents do, when the data suggest instead that the children of immigrants only “catch up” to the crime levels of their American peers.
If you only consider the raw numbers (not rates) of criminal offenses, then it’s true that more immigrants will lead to more crime—in the same way that more births will lead to more crime, or more people not in prison will lead to more crime. The more people enter the United States, the more likely there will be another person like Kathryn Steinle’s killer among them. But that’s not a realistic argument for building real and metaphorical walls around the country and not letting anyone in.
Donald Trump is not basing his presidential candidacy on realistic arguments. The murder of Kathryn Steinle fits into his narrative of a country under siege by hordes of both legal and undocumented immigrants, and the tragedy may indeed be a major reason for his surge in the Republican primary polls this summer. Beginning with next week’s first debate among the GOP candidates, we’ll see whether his opponents are willing to let Trump define the Republican Party as hostile to immigration and indifferent to facts.