A timely new report by a controversial researcher about young undocumented people in Arizona and the crimes they commit is being welcomed warmly by conservatives.
But is it trustworthy?
The 40-page report, released January 15 by pro-gun researcher John Lott, Jr., based on state Department of Corrections statistics, makes young, undocumented residents out to be gang-plagued hoodlums.
That comports well with President Trump's statement on December 6 that Democrats "want to have illegal immigrants pouring into our country, bringing with them crime, tremendous amounts of crime.”
Nearly every study on the subject of immigrants and crime, or undocumented immigrants and crime, shows the opposite effect. That is, the studies say that immigrants in the United States, legal or not, have a lower-than-average crime rate as a group, when compared to other groups or the country as a whole.
"Undocumented Immigrants, U.S. Citizens, and Convicted Criminals in Arizona," a 40-page report dated January 12 by pro-gun economist and Lott, paints a different picture.
The report is based on hard numbers from the Arizona Department of Corrections. It says that undocumented immigrants in Arizona ages15-35 — the age eligible for the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — made up about 2 percent of the population in Arizona in 2014, but comprised 8 percent of its state-prison population. And, the report states, "they tend to commit more serious crimes."
(DACA participants are a relatively crime-free group themselves, since criminal behavior excludes them from participating.)
Analyzing all people convicted and sentenced to Arizona prison from 1985 to 2017 shows that undocumented immigrants were 142 percent more likely to be convicted (and imprisoned) for a crime than other Arizonans, with nearly three times the rate of manslaughter or murder convictions, according to the report.
It's true — as Phoenix New Times has reported previously — that undocumented people typically make up a higher-than-average number of state prisoners.
How the numbers should be interpreted, though, is another question.
Then there's the problem of Lott himself: He's a nationally known, controversial figure, "discredited," according to some, who was tapped by Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery to work on a project that ended up providing the statistics Lott put in his immigration study. Of course, none of that necessarily means the new report or Lott's conclusions are incorrect.
The report comes at a time of raging debate in Congress over a conservative immigration bill and protections for undocumented people who were brought to the country by their parents when they were young.
Lott's report tends to back up the arguments of conservatives and President Trump, who say that undocumented immigrants present a criminal menace to other immigrants and Americans.
Immigrants and crime, as a subject of study, is fraught with emotion and political bias. Labeling immigrants as criminals is an age-old tactic of bigots and nativists, certainly.
But maybe undocumented immigrants do, in fact, commit crime at higher rates than other groups, including legal immigrants and U.S. citizens. That's what Lott's study purports to reveal. It represents what he calls a "unique look" at the roughly half-million prisoners who went through the system from January 1985 to June 2017.
The percentage of undocumented people in Arizona prison fluctuates from year to year. In 2014, the last year for which Lott had complete data, undocumented immigrants made up about 4.8 percent of Arizona's population, but 12.6 percent of the prison population.
The percentage has dropped from a high of more than 14 percent in 2010, likely the result of many undocumented people moving away during the Great Recession.
Undocumented immigrant prisoners also were more likely to be gang members than other criminals, and their longer sentences indicated they were committing more serious crimes than other groups, the report states.
The younger the prisoner, the more likely to be convicted and imprisoned, it states.
"Unfortunately, if the goal of DACA is to give citizenship to a particularly law-abiding group of undocumented immigrants, it is accomplishing the opposite of what it was intended," Lott wrote in the report, emphasizing that those undocumented immigrants "too old for DACA status" are convicted at much lower rates.
The number of young undocumented people in Arizona would have to be nine times greater over the years to account for the statistical high rate of incarceration, he wrote.
Most likely, Lott said, the numbers based on DOC inmates under-represent the crimes being committed by Arizona's undocumented population, because undocumented immigrants are known to be reluctant to report crimes.
Immigrants here legally, conversely, were "extremely law-abiding," the report showed, making up 3.9 of the overall population in 2014 but just 1.5 percent of the state prison population. And overall, according to the report, the ratio of African-Americans in prison here compared to the population is almost double the total Hispanic rate.
Lott told New Times that one of the biggest surprises for him in the data was that undocumented people, unlike other prisoners, had incredibly low recidivism rates. About 25 percent of U.S. citizens in Arizona prisons had been admitted to DOC custody five or more times. Only 3 percent of undocumented inmates were sent back to Arizona prison that often.
If they go through the system once or twice, "they don't come back," Lott said. "Deportation is having some impact on crime."
Mainstream and left-wing media sites all but ignored Lott's report after it came out. But right-wing outlets like Daily Caller and Breitbart jumped on it, with some pundits weighing in strongly on its political implications.
Scott Morefield, a writer for Townhall.com, believes the report is the death knell for the "myth of the noble illegal immigrant."
"When will the carnage be enough for Americans to reject the lies they’ve been fed for so many years?" Morefield wrote. "Perhaps when they finally know the unfettered truth, and the 'myth' is destroyed for good."
"Illegal aliens in general, and 'dreamers' in particular, have been a nightmare for Arizona," wrote David Horowitz of the Conservative Review on Monday, ignoring that by definition Dreamers can't have criminal records.
Interestingly, Washington Post columnist Salvador Rizzo mentioned Lott's report in a lengthy fact-check article on Thursday regarding Trump's claims about immigrant crime, but doesn't try to debunk it's findings outright.
Rizzo wrote that Lott's study is an "outlier, since the majority of other studies have come to diametrically opposite conclusions, including those in peer-reviewed publications."
It's "not scientific to extrapolate Arizona’s figures to from nationwide conclusions," Rizzo alleged, which is something Lott does in the report.
The left-wing Media Matters for America called Lott a "discredited figure" in a January 17 article and complained that Kris Kobach, the secretary of state of Kansas and noted immigration foe, referred to the "highly dubious study" on Fox & Friends.
The site said Lott's study "contradicts years of sociological research finding(s)" and ignored potential police bias that resulted in immigrants' initial arrests.
Montgomery's pick of Lott last year to lead the update of a state sentencing report, upon which Lott's immigration study is based, raised questions with civil-rights activists.
The sentencing report, called Prisoners in Arizona, was first created in 2009 by former DOC statistician Daryl Fischer for the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys’ Advisory Council, or APAAC, a group consisting mostly of elected prosecutors. As Ben Giles of the Arizona Capitol Times reported in August, activists have long been worried that politicians use the APAAC report to oppose the reform of sentencing laws.
An attorney with the Institute for Justice told Giles that Montgomery's use of $34,500 in RICO funds to pay Lott and his Crime Prevention Research Center for the latest update was "questionable." The last update of the report by Fischer, in 2014, cost $14,000.
Lott became a hero to the gun-rights culture with his 1998 book, More Guns, Less Crime, which used statistics to show that violent crime goes down when a state passes a concealed-weapons law. His work soon became the target of extreme criticism, including in the popular book Freakonomics, which claimed Lott's theory didn't hold up. Lott sued author Steven Leavitt for defamation, ultimately winning a cringe-worthy concession letter by Leavitt.
Lott's reputation suffered, though, when a blogger revealed Lott had championed his research in online forums under the pseudonym Mary Rosh. In addition to liberals, Lott has been slammed by conservatives including Michelle Malkin, who wrote in 2003 that Lott's alleged fabrication of a gun study was a "disturbing charge," and that he claimed to lose all of the survey data for that study in a "computer crash." Lott's lengthy response to Malkin can be found on his website.
Lott is a complicated character, to say the least. But this isn't the first time Montgomery's used RICO money to prop up a star of the conservative universe: In 2014 and 2017, he's brought infamous Muslim-basher John Guandolo to Arizona to teach local cops about jihadists.
Oddly, Lott's immigration report was released before the public got to see the comprehensive APAAC report that he was paid public money to produce. Elizabeth Ortiz, APAAC executive director, said the web version was still being designed, and that she expected it to be put online by next week.
Assume Lott got the DOC numbers right: He and his right-wing fans, including Republican politicians, may still have it wrong about Dreamers and crime.
Bill Terrill, a professor of criminal justice at ASU's School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, looked at Lott's immigration report at New Times' request. His first thought: "Systemic bias in the justice system," typically targeted at young men of color.
"They're more likely to be stopped, searched, frisked, and police have more suspicions right out of the gate," he said. "It doesn't mean they're committing crimes at a greater rate. Collectively, immigrants commit less crime."
Police or even judges might have "implicit" — or subconscious — bias that influence such things, he said.
One striking example of such bias was covered in a 2016 series by Florida's Sarasota-Herald Tribune, which seemed to prove that judges were sentencing black people to longer prison terms than white people for no discernible reason other than race.
Lott acknowledged that the higher rates of incarceration for undocumented immigrants may incorporate factors other than undocumented people committing crimes at a higher rate.
Under ex-Maricopa County Sheriff Arpaio's reign, for instance, there was "additional effort" to capture undocumented immigrants, he said.
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Plus, his study showed a large amount of drug-trafficking cases, which would be expected in a active smuggling zone like the border state of Arizona. Lott agreed that an unknown number of those cases may not involve undocumented residents, but criminals who crossed the border for an afternoon, got caught, and had their cases referred to state court.
Taking out some of those cases would alter his bottom-line results for undocumented criminality, to some extent.
But Lott said his study would still hold up because it examined incarceration rates for different types of crimes. He counters criticism with another point from the stats: Undocumented immigrants showed higher conviction rates than U.S. citizens who are black or Hispanic.
"Legal Hispanics are actually relatively law-abiding," he said. "There can't be large discrimination against Hispanics, per se."