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Trump Is Distorting Statistics to Demonize Immigrants

The administration's new report on international terrorism is full of misleading numbers and glaring omissions.

Shawn Thew-Pool/Getty Images

When President Donald Trump kicked off his campaign in the summer of 2015 by smearing Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug traffickers, he had only his own celebrity to spread dubious theories about immigrants and crime. Now he has the machinery of the federal government to provide flawed evidence for more restrictive immigration policies.

A report released Tuesday by the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security represents the Trump administration’s latest effort to conflate immigrants and criminality. It tabulates the number of foreign nationals linked to international terrorism, gender violence and honor killings, and other major crimes since September 11, 2001. The government intends it to be the first report of a series mandated by executive order—a rolling, state-run litany of sins committed by foreigners against the American homeland.

“This report reveals an indisputable sobering reality—our immigration system has undermined our national security and public safety,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement. He cited the report’s figures to support the administration’s push for “a merit-based immigration system that ends the use of diversity visas and chain migration.”

The Diversity Visa Program and chain migration are perennial targets of scorn from immigration hardliners like Sessions. The former offers eligible immigrants from underrepresented countries the chance to obtain residency, while the latter refers to federal immigration laws that allow U.S. immigrants to sponsor family members for visas. Republicans in Congress have proposed nixing both programs in recent weeks in exchange for an agreement with Democrats on preserving Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama-era program that grants temporary legal status to undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children.

Tuesday’s joint report, titled “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States,” was mandated by Trump’s March 6 executive order that re-established a travel ban targeting six Muslim-majority countries. The order requires the secretary of homeland security and attorney general to publicly release data on crimes committed by immigrants since 9/11, and asked questions that betrayed the underlying purpose: How many foreign nationals have been convicted of international terrorism-related crimes by U.S. courts? How many foreign nationals were radicalized after entering the United States  What’s the immigration status of people convicted of major crimes? How many honor killings are committed in the United States?

In attempting to address those questions, Tuesday’s report presents a slurry of data on arrests and convictions for crimes committed by foreign nationals and immigrants, but provides virtually no context or analysis to the numbers it puts forward.

The report states, for example, that U.S. federal courts have convicted 549 defendants on international terrorism-related charges since 9/11; 402 of those defendants were born outside the U.S., while 147 were U.S. citizens by birth. The resulting figure fits into the Trump administration’s narrative: Approximately 73 percent of people with international terrorism convictions in U.S. courts are foreign-born.

On closer inspection, however, the figure doesn’t support the administration’s criticism of family-based immigration and diversity visas. Some of the defendants entered the United States through those programs, but the report can’t identify how many actually did. The figure includes an unknown number of defendants who were extradited to the U.S. from overseas, and thus hardly count as immigrants in any practical sense. And it excludes defendants who were convicted of domestic terrorism during the same timespan, for example. (This is by design, since the order explicitly limited its focus to international terrorism, which refers to acts committed on behalf of a foreign group.)

The domestic terrorism omission is particularly glaring. Take the recent case of Taylor Michael Wilson, a 26-year-old white nationalist from Missouri who had expressed an interest in “killing black people.” Federal prosecutors unsealed terrorism-related charges against him earlier this month after he allegedly tried to stop an Amtrak train in a remote part of Nebraska last October while armed with a handgun. The Huffington Post’s Ryan Reilly noted that Wilson’s arrest and indictment went unannounced by the Justice Department for a variety of factors, including that federal law considers domestic terrorism to be a “second-class threat” and doesn’t criminalize all forms of politically motivated violence. (Wilson’s alleged acts still fall under federal terrorism laws because they occurred aboard a train.)

Some of the data also appears to be outright misleading. One section is devoted to “honor killings,” which occur in some Mediterranean and South Asian cultures—usually against women who refuse to marry someone or are accused of committing adultery. Obtaining accurate figures for domestic and gender-based violence is notoriously difficult in general, and the report notes that the federal government does not currently attempt to track the number of honor killings committed in the United States.

Nonetheless, the report cites a 2014 Bureau of Justice Statistics study that it said had “estimated an average of 23-27 honor killings occur every year in the United States.” (Sessions, when he was an Alabama senator, similarly claimed during a 2016 congressional hearing that the U.S. “had 27 honor killings last year in the United States according to DOJ.”) That statistic, however, was drawn from a separate, unpublished analysis that had simply applied rates of honor killings in foreign countries to U.S. demographics, without modification—a dubious method “based on several untested assumptions,” according to the BJS study’s authors. When those authors conducted their own search for honor killings in public records, they only found 14 recorded incidents since 1990–a far cry from the 25 incidents per year suggested by Monday’s report.

Tuesday’s report isn’t the first time that the Trump administration has used federal resources to encourage hostility toward immigrants. In April 2017, the Department of Homeland Security created a hotline within the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency called Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement, or VOICE. Then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly touted the program as a specialized victim-assistance service for those who suffered at the hands of immigrants. “All crimes are terrible, but these victims are unique—and all too often ignored,” Kelly said at the time.

At first, the hotline functioned as something of a joke, as callers flooded it with complaints about “criminal alien” activity by UFOs and extraterrestrials. But something more insidious also took place. A Splinter News review of VOICE call logs in October found that hundreds of Americans used the hotline to make secret accusations about their immigrant neighbors, coworkers, and ex-friends, which “call to mind the efforts of closed societies like East Germany or Cuba to cultivate vast networks of informants and an atmosphere of fear and suspicion.”

Tuesday’s report will offer a similar outlet to those nativist tendencies. By lending the imprimatur of federal law enforcement to flawed and misleading statistics, the report gives credence to some Americans’ worst fears and claims about immigrants. But that’s what it was intended to do, which explains why the man responsible for its creation was so pleased with the result—and why, in praising the report, he conspicuously dropped the “international” qualifier from its description of terrorism-related offenses.