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Trump’s rhetoric about immigrant crime has finally convinced his party

Violent crime is one of those issues for which the introduction of nuance is understandably tricky. No one wants to be the person tasked with suggesting that, anecdotal examples of horrible crimes notwithstanding, trends aren’t as bleak as they seem. Just as the conflation of anecdotes with trends triggered the need for the nuance, the nuance invariably suffers the same fate: It is presented as minimizing the anecdote rather than the trend.

But sometimes the nuance is important, even in the face of a particularly horrible criminal act.

Last week, Donald Trump sat down with Fox News host Laura Ingraham for a scattershot conversation about national politics. At one point, Trump was asked how, if he wins the presidency this year, he would go about finding undocumented immigrants to deport.

Trump said he would enlist local police. Then he pivoted to suggest that those immigrants were particularly dangerous — so dangerous that he had invented a “new category” of criminal activity.

“I don’t know if you’ve heard this, but I came up with this one,” he told Ingraham. “Migrant crime. This crime — there’s violent crime, there’s migrant crime. We have a new category of crime. It’s called migrant crime. And it’s going to be worse than any other form of crime.”

This is an unexpected claim from Trump, certainly, given that his 2016 presidential bid was focused on the same purported threat. He announced his candidacy in June 2015 with the declaration that foreign countries were willfully sending dangerous criminals into the United States over the border with Mexico. It was, in fact, the trigger for his eventual success in the Republican nominating fight, showing his willingness to buck conventional Republican qualms about making false claims about the dangers of immigrants. Trump repeatedly invoked the killing of a woman named Kate Steinle by an immigrant in the country illegally as anecdotal proof of this threat.

Once inaugurated, his administration continued to suggest that immigrants were particularly dangerous. An office focused on criminal activity by immigrants was created, and the administration for a time issued updates on that activity. But at no point was there evidence that immigrants, undocumented or not, committed crimes more often than native-born Americans. In fact, analysis repeatedly showed that they were less likely to do so.

But, again, there was political utility for Trump in suggesting the opposite. At the time, his party was largely skeptical, and deservedly so, but the focus on immigration activated a far-right base of support that has stuck with Trump since. And, thanks to years of repetition of that rhetoric by Trump and his allies, Republicans now broadly think that immigrants in the country illegally are more likely to engage in violent crime.

Polling released by Monmouth University on Monday morning shows that nearly two-thirds of Republicans hold that view. Over time, that has helped push higher the percentage of the overall population that thinks immigrants commit more violent crimes as well. From 2015 to 2019, Monmouth found that at least half of respondents said that immigrants in the country illegally were no more likely than Americans overall to commit violent crimes. Now only a third of respondents hold that view.

Again, this has historically not been the case. And it is hard to say whether this is the case now.

Data on U.S. crime is collected in real time only in a piecemeal fashion, as we’ve written before. Generally, we learn about national trends only after annual data has been gathered and published, a process that takes months.

This gap has proved to be fertile ground for crafting anecdote-based narratives about crime. In the months before the 2022 midterm elections, for example, Fox News repeatedly hyped the idea that crime was surging, cherry-picking categories and locations to create an unending stream of horror stories. As it turned out, the data for 2022 showed that violent crime had declined the previous year. But we only learned that conclusively in late 2023.

Crime committed by immigrants is even harder to quantify, given that the immigration status of alleged criminal perpetrators is not always collected. When the New York Times recently tried to evaluate whether the increase in immigrants entering the United States was affecting crime in New York City, it found no evidence that it was — while recognizing the aforementioned limitation.

The paper was doing so in part because of a high-profile incident in which a group of immigrants fought several police officers in Times Square. That incident was not as clear-cut as it was initially presented in the media — and certainly not as clear-cut as the scores of mentions of it on Fox News in the past month might have suggested.

But Fox News, particularly since Trump first focused on this question in June 2015, has been hyperactive in discussing the idea that there is a link between immigration and crime. Fox has mentioned immigrants and crime 125 percent more than CNN and MSNBC combined since June 2015. Fox Business — ostensibly a business-focused channel — has mentioned it more than CNN or MSNBC.

Fox News has never mentioned it more often than this month.

Again, there is no evidence that immigrants in the country illegally have historically committed more violent crimes, and there is no evidence that such immigrants are committing more violent crimes. There is, however, obvious evidence that some immigrants have committed some crimes, and there is an obvious pattern of right-wing voices elevating those crimes, contributing to and reflecting the widespread belief among Republicans that immigrants are more likely to commit violent crimes. There also is an obvious motivation to do so by Trump, just as there was in 2015: suggesting to American voters that a Democratic administration is endangering their lives.

A common refrain in moments like this is that if the immigrant accused of committing the crime were not in the country, the crime would not have been committed. And that is necessarily true. It is also true that many other factors could reduce crime in the United States, such as quickly and consistently holding criminals to account. That system, too, often falls short.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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