Trump's immigration numbers don't add up | Editorial

By Star-Ledger Editorial Board
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on September 11, 2016

Donald Trump has backed off his plan to deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants (for now), which is a remarkable development considering that this has been a central theme to his campaign.

He says now that he will focus on removing all criminals first, and figure out what to do about the rest later. That seems like a sensible retreat: President Obama, who has deported more undocumented immigrants than any predecessor – 235,000 in 2015 alone, 59 percent with criminal records – has made the most dangerous individuals his priority. Hillary Clinton promises to do the same.

The problem is that Trump's facts on immigration are slathered in distortion, mostly to demonize people with skin a tint darker than his voter base, and surrogates such as Chris Christie repeat the same misleading numbers.

On one Sunday chat show, Christie clutched his pearls as he told a national audience that "2 to 3 million" undocumented immigrants have criminal pasts. That number comes from a think tank favoring low immigration – the Center for Immigration Studies – and it's wrong. It includes people who are here legally.

And while Trump cites real tragedies, neither trends nor existing policy priorities support his claim that he can change migrant math or the threat it allegedly represents.

If you unpack the numbers from the Department of Homeland Security, there are 820,000 unauthorized immigrants with criminal convictions, and 690,000 would be prioritized for removal under our current enforcement laws, according to a seminal study from the Migration Policy Institute.

As for the inherent dangers they present, DHS does not say how many are currently incarcerated or what their crimes were – only that 300,000 had felony convictions and 390,000 committed serious misdemeanors.

But they all are the fat targets for deportation: Since 2014, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson directed all agencies to make threats to national security, border security, and public safety the first enforcement priority, followed by aliens with one "serious" misdemeanor (domestic violence, sexual abuse, illegal firearms, drug distribution, DUI) or three common misdemeanors.

So ICE deported 139,368 with criminal convictions last year, and Trump himself doesn't argue with the math: "What people don't know is that Obama got tremendous numbers of (bad) people out of the country," he said on Fox last week. "Well, I'm gonna do the same thing."

That's fine: By and large, felony convictions should merit deportation, even though DHS leaves agents some wiggle room to "exercise discretion" as they pursue deportation priorities.

Trump is right to call out the 23 countries that often refuse to accept deportation of its citizens (Cuba, China, India, Somalia, and Ghana most commonly), which allowed 2,166 individuals, some violent, to be released to the public last year in accordance with a 2001 Supreme Court ruling.

But what Trump fails to mention that innumerable studies show that immigrants – Mexican or otherwise - are far less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. As a 2015 report from the American Immigration Council found, the incarceration rate among immigrant males between 18-39 is less than half that of American-born men of that age. 

So it's clear that he is demonizing immigrants for political gain, but he's not speaking to the majority. A CNN Poll last week found a whopping 88 percent of Americans support an earned path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and overall, immigration is only the sixth most important issue in this election. It's a sign that Trump's fibs aren't working.

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