PolitiFact: Unauthorized residents do few crimes; how few hard to say

3:08 p.m Monday, Jan. 1, 2018 Texas News & Politics
Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez announced Dec. 6 that she will run for Texas governor, giving Democrats their highest-profile candidate to date. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Long before Democrat Lupe Valdez declared her candidacy for governor, she differed with Republican incumbent Greg Abbott over barring communities from limiting their cooperation with federal authorities in immigration enforcement activities.

In 2017, the disagreements circled around Senate Bill 4, the ban on so-called sanctuary cities that the Republican-led Legislature passed and Abbott signed into law. SB 4 empowers local police officers to ask about a person’s immigration status during routine encounters, such as traffic stops, and requires local law enforcement to go along with federal agents’ detention requests for inmates suspected of illegal immigration. The law, which remains partially blocked by a federal judge’s ruling under state appeal, imposes stiff fines and criminal charges on government officials who choose to ignore it.

In July, according to a Dallas Morning News story, Abbott defended the law before the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas.

That story quoted Valdez, then Dallas County’s fourth-term sheriff, calling SB 4 a political tool to attack the vulnerable. Valdez further said that Texas Department of Public Safety numbers show that only 1.6 percent of crime is committed by unauthorized immigrants.

We wondered about that statistic, and after Valdez resigned as sheriff to launch her bid for governor, we asked how she got the number.

A campaign aide, Kiefer Odell, pointed us by email to Valdez’s December 2015 testimony before the Texas House State Affairs Committee, whose chairman, Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, announced at the hearing that according to the DPS, “there are over 176,000 criminal immigrants that have been booked into our local Texas jails between 2011 and 2015” on almost 500,000 criminal charges.

Valdez testified against the need for such a law. “Jails should be for people we’re afraid of,” Valdez told the panel, “not for people we’re upset with.”

She also said, “The undocumenteds are no more likely to commit crimes than our native-born citizens.”

Valdez, asked to speak to the basis of her latter statement, replied: “Well, as you heard before, the director said 170,000 crimes were committed by undocumenteds in four years. That’s out of 11,100,000 and something. And when you bring that right down, it came out to 1.76 percent, and we rounded off to 1.8 percent of the crimes committed in Texas during the same time period.

“So,” Valdez said, “under 2 percent of the crimes were committed, that we have record of; for all, either documented or undocumented, it was 2 percent of the actual crimes.”

We asked Odell to share the source and significance of the 11.1 million figure but didn’t hear back on that — nor, separately, did DPS spokesman Tom Vinger comment when we shared Valdez’s DPS citation, though he pointed us to an undated DPS webpage, “Texas Criminal Alien Arrest Data,” lacking in information confirming or invalidating Valdez’s claim.

As of December , the page said that more than 238,000 “criminal aliens” had been booked into Texas county jails from June 2011 through November 2017 and that those booked individuals had, in their lives, accumulated 632,000 criminal charges. There was no data on the DPS webpage about the total number of people arrested or convicted in Texas during the same period.

A cautionary note: A “criminal alien,” the Government Accountability Office has said, is a noncitizen convicted of a crime who may be lawfully or unlawfully living in the country. This definition makes it likely that not everyone described in the DPS summary was living in the U.S. illegally, which makes it hard to decipher the counts on the page.

Precise percentages aside, researchers have found that unauthorized residents don’t account for more crime than other residents. In August, for instance, PolitiFact California found Mostly True a claim that undocumented immigrants commit less crime than native Americans.

A 2015 National Academy of Sciences study mentioned in that analysis led us to a July 2015 report from the American Immigration Council, a pro-immigrant nonprofit, stating that U.S. Census Bureau data support the conclusion that immigrants are less likely than native-born Americans to be behind bars, though the report doesn’t present figures limited to unauthorized residents.

We asked Walter A. Ewing, a council researcher, to speak to Valdez’s 1.6 percent claim. By email, Ewing said he didn’t know “of any source of information that would allow that precise of an estimate of the share of crime attributable to undocumented immigrants. If there is a solid source for those numbers, I’d love to know what it is,” Ewing wrote.

Our ruling

Valdez said DPS numbers show that 1.6 percent of crime is committed by unauthorized immigrants.

We didn’t find DPS figures or an understandable methodology to support a “1.6 percent” conclusion — nor did we work up what we’d consider a solid alternate estimate. Relevant data seem unavailable. Still, national research supports Valdez’s point that people living in the U.S. illegally account for little crime.

We rate this claim Half True.

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