Border politics: Putting 'criminal alien' numbers in context

AUSTIN -- Texas leaders painted a frightening picture Monday of crimes allegedly committed by undocumented immigrants.

"I will not stand idly by while our citizens are under assault," Gov. Rick Perry said during a media conference at the Texas Capitol.

The evidence cited by Perry and other leaders included numbers collected by the Texas Department of Public Safety. A large pie chart indicated that since 2008, more than 203,000 undocumented immigrants have been booked into county jails across Texas.

"Over the course of their criminal careers these individuals have committed more than 640,000 crimes," Perry claimed.

Yet the claim falls somewhat short. The number, which is also posted on the DPS website, actually refers to criminal charges -- not convictions. The qualifier "over the course of their criminal careers" also indicates that not all of the offenses occurred within the 2008-2014 time period. So do the numbers show that undocumented immigrants account for a disproportionate amount of crime in Texas?

To put it in perspective, DPS tracked more than 5.2 million so-called "index offenses" committed between 2008 and 2012. Index offenses are used to calculate the total volume of crime and the statewide crime rate. The category includes violent crimes and property crimes -- the same types of crimes covered by the table referenced by Gov. Perry. The data is available online as part of the annual Texas Crime Report compiled by DPS. The latest publicly available report from 2012 indicates that the total volume and rate of crime in Texas has been declining since 2009.

The pie chart used Monday is also available on the DPS website, and is accompanied by a chart (proportions shown are not to scale) showing the percentage of "foreign nationals" among the total arrests made between January 2012 and June 2014. It's important to note the term foreign nationals does not necessarily mean undocumented immigrants, and also includes foreign nationals legally residing in Texas. Of 2.15 million arrests over that period, about 177,000 were non-citizens, more than 71,000 of which had been previously arrested.

According to those numbers, foreign nationals represent about 8 percent of all arrests between 2012 and 2014. Numbers provided to KVUE by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice show 10,634 of the 150,461 people currently incarcerated in state prisons were born in a foreign country and represent 7 percent of the total population. Data from the 2010 U.S. Census indicate roughly 15 percent of the state's population was born in a foreign country. Texas is estimated to hold 1.7 million undocumented immigrants, which comprise between 6 and 7 percent of the population.

On Monday the governor ordered 1,000 National Guard troops to join DPS for a border enforcement surge in the Rio Grande Valley, but some border sheriffs have expressed doubt whether they're needed. While Republicans have applauded the governor's decision, Democrats have criticized it for failing to focus on caring for the tens of thousands of children being smuggled into Texas from Central America.

"These aren't people coming in to commit crimes," said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio), chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. "These are children. These are babies. These are minors, and while I understand that any situation we have to be vigilant, we need to make sure that we are protecting our borders, if this is a law enforcement issue, lets give it to the law enforcement community."

Martinez Fischer says while Texas Republicans are demanding the federal government pay for guard troops, they're ignoring money already on the table. President Barack Obama requested Congress pass a $3.7 supplemental appropriation to deal with the crisis shortly before arriving in Texas earlier this month. The request has met heavy resistance from Perry and other Republicans, who argue it contains too little money for border protection and doesn't address changes to immigration policies they believe have contributed to the problem.

"For a party that prides themselves under the mantra of 'come and take it,' here's the President of the United States saying, 'Come and take this money,'" said Martinez Fischer. "'Come and take this $3.7 billion, $400 million going to border protection.'"

Still many in the valley are concerned by the wave of people illegally crossing the border, and say they welcome the troops.

"I think it's a good idea," Brownsville farm owner Rusty Monsees told McAllen ABC affiliate KRGV-TV. "I've seen an increase in people and it's not the kids. It's the adults. They come up to the house, they get in my truck, they want a ride, they want to use the phone."


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