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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump Repeats ‘Criminal Alien’ Claim

President-elect Donald Trump repeated an exaggerated claim that there are “probably 2 million” or “even 3 million” criminals living illegally in the U.S. One estimate puts the figure at about 820,000.

Trump made his remarks in an interview with Lesley Stahl on CBS’ “60 Minutes.” It was his first national TV interview since winning the election.

Lesley Stahl, Nov. 13: What about the pledge to deport millions and millions of undocumented immigrants?

Donald Trump: What we are going to do is get the people that are criminal and have criminal records, gang members, drug dealers, we have a lot of these people, probably 2 million, it could be even 3 million, we are getting them out of our country or we are going to incarcerate. But we’re getting them out of our country, they’re here illegally. After the border is secured and after everything gets normalized, we’re going to make a determination on the people that you’re talking about who are terrific people. …

Trump made a similar claim in an Aug. 31 speech in Arizona just hours after meeting with the president of Mexico. At that time, Trump said there are “at least 2 million … criminal aliens now inside of our country,” citing “federal data.”

It is true that a fiscal year 2013 Department of Homeland Security report says: “ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] estimates that 1.9 million removable criminal aliens are in the United States today.”

But not all of those “criminal aliens” live in the U.S. illegally. The term refers to any noncitizen — whether in the U.S. legally or illegally — who has ever been convicted of a crime in the United States, according to a Sept. 8, 2016, report by the Congressional Research Service. “Criminal aliens” include legal permanent residents, also known as green card holders, and those living in the U.S. legally on temporary visas who have committed a crime in the U.S.

The ICE report did not say how many of the 1.9 million “criminal aliens” are living in the U.S. illegally, and neither did the CRS report. However, the Migration Policy Institute says that most of them are here legally.

In a July 2015 report, the Migration Policy Institute estimated that 820,000 of the 1.9 million are living in the U.S. illegally. Most of those 820,000 people — about 690,000 — have been convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanor that would make them targets for removal under policies adopted by the Obama administration in 2014. (See page 25 of the report.)

By that measure, most of the 1.9 million “criminal aliens” came to the U.S. legally via green cards and visas — not by illegally crossing the southern border.