IMMIGRANTS & CRIMECrime Rates, Not the Number of Crimes, Are a Better Way to Judge Immigrant Criminality

By Alex Nowrasteh

Published 17 April 2024

Focusing on crime rates rather than the number of crimes is essential to compare criminality between populations such as immigrants and native‐born Americans. Otherwise, there is no basis for arguing that one or the other is more criminally inclined, which really matters when discussing public safety.

Yesterday, Tuesday, 16 April 2024, the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, Subcommittee on National Security, the Border, and Foreign Affairs held a hearing titled “How the Border Crisis Impacts Public Safety.” My colleague David Bier testified. One of the other witnesses was Ken Cuccinelli, former attorney general of Virginia, who also served in various capacities at the Department of Homeland Security. Cuccinelli submitted written testimony about the impact of illegal immigration on crime, stating, “Crime rates do not matter, only the raw number of crimes and the harm caused by those crimes.”

Cuccinelli was trying to refute Cato Institute research that finds illegal immigrants and legal immigrants have a consistently lower criminal conviction rate and incarceration rate than native‐born Americans by channeling a common refrain I hear on Twitter and from immigration restrictionists: ‘Some immigrants commit crimes, and those crimes would not have occurred in the United States if the immigrants weren’t here.’In an obtuse way, they have a point. But it’s a trivial point because some individuals in any large population will always commit some crimes. Even small populations of people disinclined to commit crimes contain a few individuals who occasionally do, such as female biology professors.

However, the focus on crime rates matters when discussing the relative criminality of different groups and evaluating whether immigrants bring more crime than they add people to the United States.

Cuccinelli’s statement that crime rates don’t matter, that only the number of crimes matters, says nothing substantive about the potential danger that immigrants pose to Americans. Let me give an example. Under Cuccinelli’s interpretation, a city with 100 murders is twenty times more dangerous than a city with five murders. But if the city with 100 murders has a million residents and the city with five murders has only 100 residents, then the city with fewer murders is far more dangerous to the residents. The city with one million residents and 100 murders has a homicide rate of 10 per 100,000. The city with 100 residents and five murders has a homicide rate of 5,000 per 100,000, which is 500 times as great as the larger city with 20 times the number of murders.

This is an extreme example, but an example necessary to explain why crime rates are more important to understand relative to criminality and danger than the number of crimes. Which city would you want to live in?