Fact or fiction? The myths and realities of illegal immigration

Published: Monday, June 28 2010 6:00 p.m. MDT

Marchers make their way to the state Capitol to demand immigration reform March 21.

Brian Nicholson, Deseret News

Maybe you've heard the debates on talk radio or seen the e-mail blasts, arriving with increasing urgency as people take sides over Arizona's new immigration law.

You can hardly turn on your computer without tripping over statistics like these: "Every day, illegal aliens murder 12 Americans" and "$200 billion a year in suppressed American wages are caused by illegal aliens."

Or you may have heard some of these claims: "Illegal immigrants cause most of the crime and drug problems here. They don't pay taxes. They crowd our schools."

With immigration reform on the horizon, the Deseret News set out to see if we could confirm or debunk what's being said. Try to get to the bottom of the data, though, and you often find yourself going in circles, finding figures quoted and requoted with no actual source. There are conflicting studies that lump together illegal and legal immigrants without distinguishing between the two. There are reports with outdated numbers and sometimes no real numbers at all. There are government reports, academic studies and statements by groups that have a clear agenda, either for or against illegal immigrants. The claims can inflame the debate, even though many make no distinction between legal and illegal immigrants and aim vitriol at anyone of Hispanic descent. Others have little to no basis in reality. And yet, some of the claims and statistics regarding immigration are driving the push for reform and could end up influencing legislation and the fate of tens of thousands of Utahns and millions of Americans.

So how much of what is being said is fact, and how much is fiction?

Here's what we found.

WHAT YOU HEAR: Illegal immigrants cause most local crime, crowding prisons.

WHAT WE FOUND: A just-completed study seems to refute that and show how wrong perceptions by whites can be. It was conducted by the Consortium for Police Leadership in Equity and looked at crime by all Hispanics in Salt Lake City over five years. It did not single out those who are illegal immigrants.

That study found that whites thought Latinos caused about half of local drug crime. In reality, they caused 27 percent, less than expected, given they account for 28 percent of the city's population. It did not single out those who are here illegally.

Whites also thought Latinos caused about half of all violent crime. Data showed that they actually caused about 26 percent of it.

Whites blamed Latinos for just over a third of all identity theft, figuring illegals use stolen Social Security numbers to work. The study said Latinos are responsible for 17 percent of identity theft.

Again, those numbers are for all Hispanics, not just illegal immigrants. Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank has suggested looking at prison populations to figure how many criminals are undocumented aliens.

U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics data show that in 2008, about 4 percent of prisoners in Utah were illegal immigrants — about the same percentage as in the overall population. In 2007, about 3.6 percent of prisoners were undocumented.

Meanwhile, many specific claims about illegal aliens and crime on the Internet seem to lack credible sources. Such claims include that 12 Americans are killed each day by an illegal immigrant, 13 Americans are killed every day by uninsured drunken illegal immigrant drivers and "nearly one million sex crimes" have been committed by illegal immigrants in America.

Often cited as a source for "12 Americans killed each day by illegals" is a 2006 letter from Rep. Steve King of Iowa in which he makes this claim but cites no source.

King's letter is also quoted as a source for the claim that 13 Americans killed each day by illegal immigrants driving drunk. It quoted an article in WorldNetDaily.com, which says a AAA Foundation for Traffic study "found 20 percent of fatal accidents involve at least one driver who lacks a valid license."

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