Crime Stats Figure In Illegal Immigration Debate The New York Times ran a story claiming that illegal immigration in Arizona hasn't resulted in a rise in crime on the border, but a drop. Blogger Tom Maguire disputed the numbers. James Alan Fox analyzed the data and concluded that crime statistics have no place in the debate over illegal immigration.
NPR logo

Crime Stats Figure In Illegal Immigration Debate

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Crime Stats Figure In Illegal Immigration Debate

Crime Stats Figure In Illegal Immigration Debate

Crime Stats Figure In Illegal Immigration Debate

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The New York Times ran a story claiming that illegal immigration in Arizona hasn't resulted in a rise in crime on the border, but a drop. Blogger Tom Maguire disputed the numbers. James Alan Fox analyzed the data and concluded that crime statistics have no place in the debate over illegal immigration.


James Alan Fox, law professor, Northeastern University


On these issues, we often turn to crime expert and Northeastern University law professor James Alan Fox. He took a look at the data, and in a post on his blog for The Boston Globe, he concluded that crime statistics have no place in the debate over illegal immigration.

TALK OF THE NATION: And joining us now from the studios of the Christian Science Monitor in Boston is James Alan Fox, professor of criminal justice and professor of law, policy and society at Northeastern University. Nice to have you back with us.

JAMES ALAN FOX: Thank you very much. Nice to be here.

CONAN: And - well, taking - does this seem to be a case of lies, damn lies and statistics? Two different people looking at the same numbers and drawing different conclusions?

ALAN FOX: And the other factor that I looked at was the population changes. There was, interestingly, in the FBI statistics in 2006, a sudden drop in population in the outlying areas of about a quarter to a third. Well, that reflects geographic redefinitions, and it reflects different ways of estimating population. You have to be very skeptical of this kind of statistic based on just two time points when there are so many other factors involved. So, I think in the end, it's not that I don't think that crime is an issue. I don't think fear of crime is relevant to this debate.

CONAN: You don't think fear of crime is relevant to the - one of the major points of the Times article was, in fact, that the perception of crime was outpaced by the reality.

ALAN FOX: Well, it always is. People are driven by what they believe to be true, not necessarily what is true. And statistics, other than what you said earlier about lies, damned lies and statistics - a phrase I detest, being a statistician.

CONAN: Those of us who read history like Churchill a lot.

ALAN FOX: I know. Well, he wasn't very good in math. The thing about statistics and the public is that people tend to sort of their eyes glass - glaze over when they see these statistics.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

ALAN FOX: And the fact is that crime has not increased in Arizona. In fact, it's gone down mostly. And the - and trying to blame illegal immigrants for rising crime crime, just isn't fair.

CONAN: And there are other people, though, who looked at those same numbers - and, again, going back to that original Times' article say violent crime might be down - and this is, again, looking at the numbers for the state overall - but property crime went up. And that might be the kind of crime - it's more common than violent crime - and it might have impact on more people's lives.

ALAN FOX: Well, it could be. Let's all understand, too, that the vast majority of property crimes, about three quarters of property crimes, are low level thefts, thefts involving property worth $10, $25, $50. We're not talking about, necessarily, the most serious crimes as driving public opinion. I don't think people are up in arms about illegal immigration because of a theft of $25. I think when they hear crime they think, my family won't be safe. That's really the issue here, I believe. And that's where this fear is misplaced.

CONAN: And that is - again, going back to the original story in The New York Times, it goes back to Robert Krentz, a rancher, who was shot to death this year on his property near the border with Mexico. Authorities suspect the culprit was linked to smuggling, smuggling either of drugs or of people across the border.

ALAN FOX: Let me also point this out as far as statistics. One of the commenters to my blog for, relayed some data from a Maricopa County report from a couple of years ago about the conviction rates for illegal aliens - illegal residents, I'm sorry.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

ALAN FOX: Illegal immigrants and the general population. And what the statistics showed - according to this commenter and I can only take them at face value - was that the rates were somewhat higher - not so much in violent crime, very small difference. But they were higher in drug offenses - that's not a surprise - in some other crimes. But the problem with that statistic is that if you take any population, even red-blooded Americans who are poor, underclass, lack opportunity, you will also find a higher rate of criminality. So it's not really the immigrant status or illegal immigrant status that's behind these higher rates of convictions. It's really the lifestyle, the poverty that this population is coming from.

CONAN: And let's see if we get some callers in on the conversation. And again, we want to hear from callers and listeners in Arizona about how the issue of crime plays out in the debate over illegal immigration in that state. We'll start with Sabra(ph), Sabra with us from Tucson.

SABRA: Yes, I am.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

SABRA: Well, I've lived on the border in Arizona and then Texas for most of my adult life, and I'd like to make this observation. And that is in all the years I've lived here, migrant workers have never been a problem in terms of safety. Now the problem is that the drug cartels have gained huge control of the border towns in Mexico as well as some of the interior towns like Monterey. And they have become the force that we have to deal with. And they do scare us, all of us, particularly those of us who live near places like Nogales or Reynosa or those towns.

CONAN: And when you - go ahead. I'm sorry, James Fox?

ALAN FOX: Absolutely, you're right that there has been this - this drug war on the southern side of the border and spilling over to the northern side. But that's not the illegal immigrant problem. And what happens is two thing - two things happen at the same time. Well, more illegal immigrants, more crime. Gee, it must be causal. But as you point out, it's not. It's something entirely different going on.

SABRA: That's right. And I hope that, you know, that people in Washington are aware that those of us who live here have lived with migrants all of our lives.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

SABRA: But what wev'e not lived with is the powerful drug cartels that are moving north out of Mexico.

CONAN: Sabra, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

SABRA: You're welcome.

CONAN: Do the statistics, though, show, James Alan Fox, that the drug war is spilling across the border?

ALAN FOX: Yeah. Well, the cases that the caller referred to, yeah, they are. Clearly, the biggest problem is in Mexico. But the drug wars creates - wreaks havoc on the Southwest part of our country, absolutely.


CONAN: What was - that's your - that must be your cell phone.

ALAN FOX: I'm sorry. That's my cell phone which I...

CONAN: Good ringer.

ALAN FOX: ...forgot to turn off.

CONAN: Good ringtone.

ALAN FOX: Yeah, just to facts, "Dragnet."

CONAN: Let's see. We get...

ALAN FOX: And that's why - that's the way I look at it, just the facts.

CONAN: Just the facts.

ALAN FOX: Not the hysteria, not the fear.

CONAN: Christie(ph) is on the line from Eloy, is that right, in Arizona?


CONAN: Go ahead, please.

CHRISTIE: I'm actually a law enforcement officer and I work on narcotics. And what I see as a big problem is illegals aren't necessarily coming over here intending to commit crimes. But they're kind of forced into kind of what your guest is saying. They don't have legal options to work. They, you know, start hauling in drugs. They start helping bring illegal across the border. So I do think that once they're over here, they're finding themselves forced in to committing crimes. And another aspect of it is, we don't - law enforcement agencies themselves don't have the ability to identify these people.

CONAN: Right.

CHRISTIE: You know, Border Patrol has fingerprint scanners, whatever. But as a law enforcement officer, you make contact with somebody on a street, they give you one name one day and another name the next day. So it's really hard for us to enforce - for enforcement of illegals because of their ability to switch identities readily without - because they don't have driver's license. They don't have Social Security numbers like legal citizens do.

CONAN: Christie...

ALAN FOX: Let me ask the caller - I'm sorry. Go ahead.

CONAN: Well, go ahead. I had a question for her, too, but you can go first.

ALAN FOX: Okay. Given that you're in law enforcement, I have a question for you. Do you happen to know when and why the Border Patrols first were instituted, both in the Mexican border and the Canadian?


ALAN FOX: They were instituted because decades ago, European immigrants - once we cut down on immigration - European immigrants were still trying to get into this country and were trying to do so by going into Canada and Mexico and making their way across these soft borders. And I'm not sure if we look back, that this would've been a ...

CONAN: This would've been...

ALAN FOX: ...big problem of European illegal immigrants.

CONAN: This would have been in the 1920s?

ALAN FOX: A little bit later than that.

CONAN: Okay. Christie, let me also ask you, some might suggest that if you are in this country illegally, almost the last thing you would want to do is attract the attention of the authorities, and committing petty crimes is a good way to do that.

CHRISTIE: All I can tell you is that a large number of people that I've had contact with that have been driving loads of marijuana, and I'm talking thousands of pounds, they are illegal immigrants. They're here in the country illegally and they're involved in these types of crimes.

CONAN: Okay.

CHRISTIE: I can't speak for all illegals. I'm not saying...

CONAN: No, of course not. And, well, Christie, thank you very much for the call, we appreciate it.

CHRISTIE: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go next to Frank(ph), and Frank on the line from Phoenix.

FRANK: Yeah. Hi, Neal. A longtime listener, first-time caller. Great show. Thanks for taking me on the air.

CONAN: We'll, thanks for the nice words.

ALAN FOX: Do you only broadcast in Arizona? All your callers have been from there.

CONAN: Well, that's what we ask for, that's what we ask for.


ALAN FOX: Oh, did you? Okay.

FRANK: They want to make a better life for themselves. They want to make a better life for their families here and for Mexico. And the problem with the crime and the illegal crime is the ones down south with the drug cartels. That's where I think the issue is and I think the illegals in general, the ones up here in Phoenix that we see are labeled and targeted because they're an easy target. You know, they live in the barrios. They speak Spanish. They distrust authority, and they're easy to say, they're the root cause of all the crime.

ALAN FOX: Right. We paint them all with a very broad brush. If an illegal immigrant is involved in criminal activity, obviously we punish them for the criminal activity and deport them. If a citizen is involved with illegal activity, we punish them. We don't deport them, but we punish them. But that's true in general. We shouldn't be saying, oh, we're going to have special rules and special hysteria for illegal immigrants because most of them are not criminals, some of them are. But that's true of American citizens as well.

CONAN: Well, there's sort of the original sin argument. They're all criminals because they crossed the border illegally.

ALAN FOX: Yeah, but we all gamble, don't we?

CONAN: Frank, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.

ALAN FOX: May we all - my point is that there is a lot of criminal activity, status criminal activity, that Americans participate in that happen to be against the law, like betting on sports unless you're in Nevada. But people do it. It is illegal. So if you want to call them criminals, fine, call them criminals, but we're not in the practice of locking people up for that.

CONAN: Let's go to Brian(ph). Brian with us from Phoenix.

BYRON: (Caller): Hi, I'm Byron, actually.

CONAN: Oh, excuse me.

BYRON: My comment is, we experience a lot of illegal-related crimes because of human smuggling. And I think, you know, we see drop houses in the news nearly nightly. And I think if we had a better solution, if we addressed the immigration problem in that regard, perhaps we wouldn't see such high levels of human trafficking which includes kidnapping and holding people against their will.

ALAN FOX: Mm-hmm.

BYRON: You know, there's - you're violating human rights by even participating in that.

CONAN: Drop houses, for those who aren't familiar with the term, are sort of holding areas, holding places for people along the various smuggling routes once they're across the border?

BYRON: Correct.

CONAN: Okay. And obviously these are controlled by the same criminal elements who smuggle the people across the border in the first place.

ALAN FOX: And then these are red-blooded Americans, flag-waving Americans who are making a profit off of the backs of these illegals.

BYRON: And I'm not denying that either. But I do think that we are seeing, you know, I'm here at ground zero in Phoenix, in Maricopa County, and we have drop houses where there's up to I think 60 people held at gunpoint without shoes, often zip-tied up because they're here illegally. I mean, if that's not a problem, if that's not a crime, how is that not a crime that is directly related to the illegal immigration problem?

ALAN FOX: But it is. And also by the way, when illegals are victimized by crime, they're typically unwilling to call the police, given it may expose their status of being illegal. So they are subject to all sorts of victimization, not just in the drop houses but elsewhere.

CONAN: All right, Brian, thanks - Byron, excuse me, thank you very much for the call. Appreciate your time today.

BYRON: All right.

CONAN: And James Alan Fox, I want to thank you as well.

ALAN FOX: If I may, I have a new book out. If I could just...

CONAN: I was going to mention it.

ALAN FOX: Oh, go ahead. I'll let you do it.

CONAN: All right. James Alan Fox is Lipman Family professor of criminal justice and professor of law, policy and security at Northeastern University. He writes for the blog "Crime and Punishment" for The Boston Globe, and his new book is "Violence and Security on Campus: From Preschool through College." Thanks very much.

ALAN FOX: Thank you. Any time.

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News, I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.