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DOJ Report: Nearly Two-Thirds of All Federal Arrests Last Year Were Of Non-Citizens

A follow-up to my earlier post, in which I went out of my way not to paint immigrants -- including illegal immigrants -- with a broad brush.  What are we to make of this information from the Justice Department?  There are a few contradictions here to unravel, via NBC News:


Arrests of noncitizens by the U.S. government more than tripled over the past decade and now account for 64 percent of all federal arrests, the Justice Department said Thursday. "While noncitizens make up seven percent of the U.S. population, they accounted for 15 percent of all federal arrests" in 2018, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which said noncitizens accounted for roughly one-quarter of all federal drug and property crime arrests. Concern about crime committed by undocumented immigrants has been a key point in the Trump administration's push for stricter border controls. But the report showed that most of the arrests of noncitizens were for immigration offenses, not violent crimes.

So is it 64 percent or 15 percent, NBC?  Both would be disproportionately high, but there's a massive difference between those two figures.  To the official DOJ statement we go:

In 2018, 64% of all federal arrests were of non-U.S. citizens, the Bureau of Justice Statistics announced today. In comparison, 37% of all federal arrests in 1998 were of non-U.S. citizens. Federal arrests of non-U.S. citizens more than tripled from 1998 to 2018 (rising 234%), while federal arrests of U.S. citizens rose 10%. While non-U.S. citizens make up 7% of the U.S. population (per the U.S. Census Bureau for 2017), they accounted for 15% of all federal arrests and 15% of prosecutions in U.S. district court for non-immigration crimes in 2018. Non-U.S. citizens accounted for 24% of all federal drug arrests and 25% of all federal property arrests, including 28% of all federal fraud arrests. The country of citizenship of persons arrested by federal law enforcement changed notably over time. From 1998 to 2018, Mexican citizens’ share of federal arrests rose from 28% to 40%. Citizens of Central American countries’ share of federal arrests rose from 1% to 20% during the same period, while U.S. citizens’ share of federal arrests fell from 63% to 36%.


So nearly two-thirds of all federal arrests -- total -- were of non-citizens last year, including roughly one-fourth of all federal drug, property and fraud arrests. Most of the arrests were related to immigration-related crimes, but arrests for other federal crimes were disproportionately very high among this population. What about violent crimes? Back to NBC

In 2018, U.S. citizens still accounted for the vast majority of non-immigration arrests — 91 percent for violent crimes, 93 percent for public order violations and 96 percent of all arrests on weapons charges.

If I'm reading this correctly, non-citizens were arrested for nine percent of violent federal crimes in 2018. That's still disproportionately high, but not by much. A few other factors and clarifications worth noting: (1) The vast majority of arrests in this country are state arrests, so this data only gives us a sliver of the overall picture.  It's still useful, of course, but it's not comprehensive.  (2) "Non-citizens" does not necessarily mean "illegal immigrants."  This broader category also includes legal residents, visa holders, and other approved visitors.  Given the raft of information showing that legal immigrants are exceptionally law-abiding, compared to native-born Americans and illegal immigrants, I think it's a safe assumption a lopsided share of the non-citizen arrests described were, in fact, of illegal immigrants. (3) I don't think this report cancels out important findings like these, because it's a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison; arrests and incarceration rates are different metrics (for instance, an illegal immigrant arrested for various crimes might be deported, as opposed to imprisoned).  The truth seems to be murkier and more complex than either "side" of this debate would care to admit.


Perusing these numbers, I'm further convinced that neither tribe's immigration 'narrative' is cleanly proven.  Some immigration restrictionists on the Right will trumpet the 64 percent number as if it demonstrates that illegal immigrants are committing the vast majority of crimes in America, despite being a small percentage of the overall population.  That's not quite accurate, for a variety of reasons explained above.  Anti-enforcement activists on the Left and in the media, by contrast, will argue that the overwhelming majority of the arrests mentioned are "only" for non-violent and immigration offenses.  That's not a strong argument.  As mentioned earlier, it appears that non-citizens are arrested for a slightly disproportionately high number of violent federal crimes -- plus, any crime, especially a violent crime, committed by someone here illegally is unacceptable.  Downplaying federal immigration crimes, as if those don't really count or matter, is unserious and irresponsible.  The same applies to drug, property and fraud offenses.

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