Steve King on ‘Criminal Aliens’

Rep. Steve King wrongly suggested that “28 percent of the inmates in our federal penitentiaries” are immigrants in the country illegally. About 21 percent of federal inmates are non-U.S. citizens, but that includes immigrants who came to the U.S. both legally and illegally, according to government data.

Also, King mentions just federal prisons, but most inmates are incarcerated in state prisons. And only 4 percent of state and federal inmates combined are noncitizens, the data show.

In a CNN interview, King used the term “criminal aliens,” saying that those “criminal aliens” had already “committed the crime of unlawful entry.” But the term, as used by the federal government, refers to all noncitizens who have been convicted of crimes.

King made the statement on CNN’s “New Day” on March 28. Host Alisyn Camerota asked him about the Trump administration wanting to withhold federal funding from so-called sanctuary cities that limit the degree to which local police cooperate with requests from federal authorities to detain and turn over unauthorized immigrants. King said the U.S. needs to enforce immigration laws to prevent violent crimes.

King, March 28: I just don’t accept it that undocumented immigrants, if we use that term, and they are illegal aliens, commit less crimes than the broader part of the population. I will say that legal immigrants who are here on a green card and under probation, do commit less crimes than the broader part of the population. And that’s because they know they’ll be deported if they cross the law and get convicted of a crime.

But the criminal aliens that are here have already committed a crime. Everyone who crossed the border illegally committed the crime of unlawful entry.

Camerota: Yes, not a violent crime. Understood, but not a violent crime that you are talking about, the rape and murders.

King: But it goes into the data. You know, it goes into the data. And furthermore, 28 percent of the inmates in our federal penitentiaries are criminal aliens. And that’s a much higher percentage of the prison population than it is the population at large.

King’s response could have left some with the incorrect impression that more than a quarter of prisoners are people in the U.S. illegally, whom he referred to as “criminal aliens.”

The term refers to any noncitizen — whether in the U.S. legally or illegally — who has ever been convicted of a crime in the United States, according to a Sept. 8, 2016, report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. That includes legal permanent residents, also known as green card holders, and those living in the U.S. legally on temporary visas who have committed a crime in the U.S.

As of March 25, over 21 percent of federal inmates were non-U.S. citizens, according to data provided by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

But we don’t know the percentage of inmates in the country legally or illegally, because the agency doesn’t track their immigration status, BOP spokesman Justin Long told us.

Overall, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that, in 2015, around 4 percent of prisoners under the jurisdiction of state and federal correctional authorities were non-U.S. citizens, though its count doesn’t include noncitizen prisoners in four states, or those held in private prison facilities, local jails or immigration detention centers.

State prisons, with 1.3 million inmates in 2015, hold a much greater proportion of the prison population than federal prisons, with under 200,000 inmates that year, according to BJS data. Another 728,000 were incarcerated in local jails in 2015, bringing the total prison population to 2.2 million (see Table 1).

The BJS report, like the Federal Bureau of Prisons, doesn’t say how many noncitizen prisoners had legal status.

In 2015, about 8.4 percent of U.S. adults were noncitizens, according to Census Bureau data. That means noncitizens are disproportionately represented in federal prisons, but not in the much larger U.S. prison population under state and federal control.

Furthermore, most noncitizens aren’t in federal prison for the violent crimes, like murder and rape, that King mentioned earlier in the interview.

As of March 25, an immigration violation, such as unlawful reentry into the U.S., was the most serious offense for 13,603, or 34 percent, of the 39,555 noncitizens in federal prison, according to BOP data. That was second only to the 44 percent of noncitizens in prison for drug-related offenses. Around 1 percent of noncitizen inmates were imprisoned for homicide or aggravated assault, and another 1 percent were convicted of sex offenses.

That information goes into the data, as King said, but if the immigration offenders were excluded, noncitizens would make up roughly 14 percent of the federal prison population.

In a March 2017 report, the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit advocating an overhaul of the criminal justice system, said that “non-citizens are increasingly over-represented in federal sentencing and incarceration due to a rise in prison sentences for immigration offenses.”

The report’s authors noted that “the total number of federal immigration sentences has doubled between 2000 and 2015, increasing from 11,403 to 20,757, during a period in which sentences for other crimes increased by just seven percent,” based on data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission. While some immigration offenses, like transporting people into the U.S. illegally, are committed by citizens, the vast majority are committed by noncitizens.

Joshua Rovner, a juvenile justice advocacy associate for the Sentencing Project and a co-author of the report, told us that between 2006 and 2015, an average of 65 percent of noncitizens sentenced to federal prison were committed for immigration violations.

Also, Bureau of Justice Statistics data show that noncitizen immigration offenders in federal prison increased nearly 205 percent (from 7,212 to 21,969) between the end of fiscal year 1998 and 2013, the most recent figures available in the agency’s Federal Criminal Case Processing Statistics database. In contrast, noncitizen violent offenders in federal prison increased 52 percent (from 407 to 619) during that same time period.

We contacted King’s congressional office in Washington, D.C., to get an explanation for his claim, but we haven’t received a response.

King said that he doesn’t “accept it that undocumented immigrants … commit less crimes than the broader part of the population.” It’s worth noting, as we have written before, that numerous studies have found that immigrants don’t commit crimes at a higher rate than nonimmigrants, and that higher concentrations of immigrants don’t lead to higher rates of violent crime. Those studies pertained to all immigrants, regardless of legal status.

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