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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Rick Perry Misuses ‘Criminal Alien’ Data

In discussing his decision to send the National Guard to the Mexico border, Texas Gov. Rick Perry repeatedly has misused data on “criminal aliens” arrested in Texas.

Perry says 203,000 “illegal aliens” arrested since September 2008 “are responsible for over 3,000 homicides and almost 8,000 sexual assaults.” He is relying on an analysis of federal data by the Texas Department of Public Safety. But a department spokesman told us the 203,000 people are actually foreign-born individuals living in the U.S. illegally and legally. They also have been charged with 3,000 homicides and 8,000 sexual assaults over their lifetimes, but not necessarily convicted.

The Public Safety Department said it did not have separate data on the number of “illegal aliens” who have been arrested in Texas since September 2008 or the number of their convictions.

Perry, who unsuccessfully ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, was one of the first in the country to raise the alarm about the spike in the number of unaccompanied children from Central America illegally crossing the border. In May 2012, Perry wrote a letter to President Obama to urge him to take action to address what he called “an obvious humanitarian crisis.” Perry wrote, “Inaction encourages other minors to place themselves in extremely dangerous situations.”

He was right about that. As we have written before, the number of unaccompanied children placed in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement doubled from fiscal year 2011 to fiscal year 2012 and nearly doubled again in fiscal year 2013. As of July 31, Customs and Border Patrol had apprehended 62,998 unaccompanied children in the first 10 months of this fiscal year — more than double the 27,844 apprehended in all of fiscal 2013.

But it wasn’t until this year that the issue got the attention of the president, who in a June 30 speech in the Rose Garden called the situation “an actual humanitarian crisis” and urged Congress to work with the administration to address it. Obama met with Perry on July 9, urging the governor to pressure Congress to provide supplemental funding to deal with the problem, but no congressional action has been taken.

On July 21, Perry announced he would send 1,000 National Guard troops to guard the state’s border with Mexico, citing the federal government’s failure to act.

But Perry has misused federal and state statistics on “criminal aliens” when discussing what he calls a public safety threat posed by those crossing the border illegally. He did this in TV interviews on July 17 with Glenn Beck, July 23 with Sean Hannity and most recently Aug. 3 on CNN’s “State of the Union with Candy Crowley.”

Perry, Aug. 3: Since September of ’08, we have seen 203,000 individuals who have illegally come into the United States, into Texas, booked into Texas county jails. And, Candy, these individuals are responsible for over 3,000 homicides and almost 8,000 sexual assaults.

Perry, July 23: Sean, there have been over the course of the last five years, since the fall of ’08, over 203,000 individuals who have come into Texas illegally that have been booked into our county jails. Those individuals have been accounted for over 3,000 homicides and over 8,000 sexual assaults.

Perry, July 17: The number of illegal activities, up to and including homicides, I think over 3,000 homicides by illegal aliens over the course of the last six years.

The source of the governor’s data is the Texas Department of Public Safety, which has a Web page titled “Texas Criminal Alien Arrest Data” that at the time of Perry’s remarks provided data on “criminal aliens” arrested in Texas from October 2008 through July 1.

Texas Department of Public Safety: From October 2008 through July 1, 2014, Texas has identified a total of 203,685 unique criminal alien defendants booked into Texas county jails. Over their criminal careers, these defendants are responsible for at least 642,564 individual criminal charges in Texas, mostly consisting of Class B misdemeanors or higher, including 3,070 homicides and 7,964 sexual assaults as seen on the chart below.

(The Public Safety Department since has updated its Web page, so it now has data through Aug. 1 that shows there were “207,076 unique criminal alien defendants booked into Texas county jails” who “are responsible for at least 652,979 individual criminal charges in Texas … including 3,089 homicides and 8,070 sexual assaults.”)

First, we note that the state website says “criminal charges,” not convictions, so Perry is wrong when he says those here illegally were “responsible for” or “accounted for” 3,000 homicides and nearly 8,000 sexual assaults. (In one instance, Perry said these crimes occurred “over the course of the last six years,” which is clearly wrong since the state says the charges were filed “over their criminal careers.” But Perry did not repeat that error, so we assume it was a slipup.)

We asked the Department of Public Safety how many of the arrests resulted in actual convictions, but it did not know. It also doesn’t know how many of the “criminal aliens” are in the U.S. illegally.

We were told that the department got its data from a federal program called Secure Communities, which U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement uses to prioritize “the removal of criminal aliens, those who pose a threat to public safety, and repeat immigration violators.” Under the program, state and local police provide the FBI with the fingerprints of those arrested, and then the FBI sends the fingerprints to ICE “to check against its immigration databases,” as the Congressional Research Service explains in a recent report.

CRS, April 24, 2014: Specifically, the fingerprints of persons arrested by state and local officers are sent to the FBI’s Integrated Automatic Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS), which then sends them to ICE’s Automated Biometric Identification System (IDENT). This system automatically notifies ICE personnel whenever the fingerprints of persons arrested by state and local officers match those of a person previously encountered and fingerprinted by immigration officials.

ICE’s monthly report on Secure Communities shows that from Oct. 27, 2008, to May 31, 2014, there were 284,088 IDENT matches in Texas. As we said earlier, Texas identified 203,685 “unique criminal alien defendants” through July, which is lower than the 284,088 figure initially identified by ICE through May. Tom Vinger of the Texas Public Safety Department explained the discrepancy in an email: “We are only reporting ‘unique individuals.’ DHS reports total hits, which includes recidivists. We only count the individual once, and then additional charges are added to the total number of charges.”

We note that the IDENT matches include any “person previously encountered and fingerprinted by immigration officials,” and that includes U.S. naturalized citizens and others who are living in the U.S. legally as well as those who are living here illegally, according to the CRS report and Vinger. In fact, the CRS report said, “ICE personnel then review other databases to determine whether the person is here illegally.” But that information is not contained in ICE’s monthly reports.

Vinger referred us to ICE for information on how many of the “criminal aliens” are here illegally and the number of convictions they had. But ICE did not respond to our requests for information, and it has been equally unhelpful to others who have been seeking more information beyond the monthly statistics ICE publishes on its website.

The Transaction Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University is a resource for immigration data and information on immigration programs. TRAC said this about the Secure Communities program: “ICE does publish some useful monthly statistics. But these leave the public in the dark as to what happens after a match occurs.” TRAC has filed Freedom of Information requests for “detailed data on enforcement practices and the results achieved under this program,” but it says “ICE has ignored multiple FOIA requests.”

So, we do not know how many of the 203,000 individuals cited by Perry as “illegal aliens” are actually living here in the U.S. illegally. And neither does the Texas Department of Public Safety.

But we do know that most of the foreign-born population in the U.S. is here legally.

In 2011, there were about 40 million foreign-born residents living in the U.S., according to a May 2013 Congressional Budget Office report. That includes about 29 million who were living in the U.S. legally (18 million naturalized U.S. citizens and 11 million noncitizens who are authorized to live and work in the U.S.) and 11.5 million who are living here illegally.

The governor, of course, has every right to be concerned with the safety of his residents, but he is misusing the “criminal alien” data and, as a result, exaggerating the scope of the problem posed by those living in the U.S. illegally.

— Eugene Kiely