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An Exhibition of Conservative Paranoia

Exhibit 77: Denial of Reality Attack, Immigrant Crime Division

The Media Research Center's Brad Wilmouth clings to another lost cause: the right-wing narrative that illegal immigrants commit more crime, despite all the evidence indicating otherwise.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 5/27/2021

The Media Research Center's Brad Wilmouth just loves to cling to lost factual causes. ConWebWatch has already documented how he has insisted that Republican Rep. Steve Scalise never gave a speech to a David Duke-led white nationalist group despite Scalise's apology for doing so, as well as his declaration that Donald Trump never called for the death penalty for the Central Park Five despite his buying a full-page newspaper ad effectively doing exactly that.

But there is another dubious cause Wilmouth was dedicated to pushing: the right-wing narrative that illegal immigrants commit more crimes than American citizens.

Wilmouth has been pushing this claim since at least 2017, when he claimed that CNN host Chris Cuomo "wrongly suggested that illegal immigrants commit crime at a rate lower than American citizens as he repeated the recurring myth from the left while debating Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson." He cited only a Daily Wire commentary that claimed only that "Fox News sorted through myriad 'local, state and federal statistics' and found that 'illegal immigrants are three times as likely to be convicted of murder as members of the general population and account for far more crimes than their 3.5-percent share of the U.S. population would suggest'" and that "A disproportionate amount of illegals are in state prisons."

When dubious pro-gun researcher John Lott issued a study in January 2018 claiming that undocumented immigrants commit more crime than U.S. citizens -- a finding described as an outlier, since most other studies on the issue have found the opposite -- The MRC jumped right in to defend Lott.

Wilmouth highlighted that "liberal CNN contributor Van Jones insisted that illegal immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than the general population as right-leaning CNN contributor Rick Santorum cited a recent study by John Lott finding that illegal immigrants in Arizona commit crimes at twice the rate of the general population.

At the MRC's "news" division,, Craig Bannister touted the study:

Undocumented (illegal) aliens are far more likely to commit crimes, as well as to commit serious crimes, than are U.S. citizens, a new study of 33 years of Arizona prison data reveals.

The study, “Undocumented Immigrants, U.S. Citizens, and Convicted Criminals in Arizona,” by Crime Prevention Research Center President John R. Lott, also extrapolates that data to estimate how many additional crimes were committed nationally in 2016 by illegal immigrants, if Arizona is representative of the U.S. as a whole.

The study provides a uniquely accurate picture of illegal immigrant crime, its abstract notes, because it relies on comprehensive state records of every prisoner incarcerated over a 33-year period, delineated by citizenship status:

Well, it turns out the study wasn't so "uniquely accurate" after all. Alex Nowrasteh at the Cato Institute explained how Lott botched the study:

The variable that Lott focused on is “CITIZEN.” That variable is broken down into seven categories. Lott erroneously assumed that the third category, called “non-US citizen and deportable,” only counted illegal immigrants. That is not true, non-US citizen and deportable immigrants are not all illegal immigrants. A significant proportion of non-U.S. citizens who are deported every year are legal immigrants who violate the terms of their visas in one way or the other, frequently by committing crimes. According to the American Immigration Council, about 10 percent of people deported annually are Lawful Permanent Residents or green card holders—and that doesn’t include the non-immigrants on other visas who were lawfully present in the United States and then deported. I will write more about this below.

Lott mistakenly chose a variable that combines an unknown number of legal immigrants with an unknown number of illegal immigrants. Lott correctly observed that “[l]umping together documented and undocumented immigrants (and often naturalized citizens) may mean combining very different groups of people.” Unfortunately, the variable he chose also lumped together legal immigrants and illegal immigrants.


Lott’s controversial empirical findings regarding the high admission rate of illegal immigrants to Arizona prisons, a finding that contradicts virtually the entire body of research on the topic, stems from his simple misreading of a variable in the 1985-2017 ADC dataset. Lott thought that “non-U.S. citizens and deportable” describes only illegal immigrants but it does not. There is no way to identify illegal immigrants with precision in the 1985-2017 ADC dataset and their population can only be estimated through the residual statistical methods that Lott derides as “primitive.” Using another variable in the June 2017 ADC dataset that Lott did not analyze reveals that, at worst, illegal immigrants in Arizona likely have an incarceration rate lower than their percentage of that state’s population.

The MRC and CNS never corrected the record so that their readers would know the truth. Nevertheless, Wilmouth spent the rest of 2018 obsessing over the question of how often illegal immigrants commit crimes -- and attacking anyone who says they do it a lower rate. In June, Wilmouth complained:

Over the past week, as the dominant media have been fixated on President Donald Trump's push to more aggressively prosecute those who cross the border illegally, there have again been questionable claims that illegal immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than the native-born population.

But the studies cited either do not make a distinction between legal and illegal immigrants, or do not look at whether those who sneak across the border illegally have a higher crime rate than those who simply overstay visas. The media also continued to ignore other studies which suggest illegal immigrants do, in fact, exhibit a higher crime rate.

He was particularly incensed at a Cato Institute study showing that illegal immigrants had a lower crime rate than native population. He insisted that "the study has a giant gap that may, in fact, lead one to logically conclude that those who sneak into the country illegally have an unusually high crime rate":

Recent reports suggest that about half of all illegal immigrants are visas overstays, so, if this substantial portion of the illegal immigrant population has a homicide rate comparable to those who are still legal, the conflation of both groups of illegals could be masking a substantially higher homicide rate perpetrated by those who sneaked across the border.

If one makes the educated guess that half of Texas illegals originally entered legally on a visa, and that this group's homicide rate is only about 0.51, one can deduce that the homicide rate of the other half of illegals (those who crossed the border illegally) could plausibly be as high as 5.3 -- substantially higher than the 3.88 rate of the native population. The CATO study does not address this logical possibility.

Wilmouth even updated his post two months later after Cato revised its numbers, claiming that his "plausible" homicide rate by illegal immigrants would now be "as high as 4.2."

Wilmouth then asserted that "there have been a couple of studies that have found the opposite on the subject of illegal immigrants and crime. A Government Accountability Office report in 2011 suggested that illegal immigrants made up somewhere around 20-30 percent of the prison population, and a study by John Lott of the Crime Prevention Research Center this year also suggested a higher crime rate by illegals."

Wilmouth not only ignored Nowrasteh's debunking of Lott's study, he ignored that Lott's research track record, which usually produces right-wing-friendly findings about guns, is questionable at best.

In September 2018, he complained that CNN guests "have repeated the questionable claims that illegal immigrants have a lower rate of committing crimes than native-born U.S. citizens," again attacking the Cato study because "it did not make a distinction between illegal immigrants who sneak across the border and those who overstay visas" and vaguely insisting that "Illegal border crossers probably have a higher crime rate than visas overstays, which is still an argument in favor of more effective border security." He then referenced "studies like that of crime researcher John Lott which found a significantly higher crime rate by illegal immigrants as compared to U.S. citizens."

In November 2018, Wilmouth attacked the Cato study again, adding: "CNN has had a history of repeatedly claiming that illegal immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than U.S. citizens without acknowledging the existence of studies by right-leaning researchers like John Lott and Peter Kirsanow that conclude the opposite." But Kirsanow did not conduct a "study" per se; he wrote a blog post for National Review cherry-picking statistics on the number of "criminal aliens" in state prisons. Again, Cato's Nowrasteh detailed how those stats were misleading. (At least Wilmouth admitted that Lott and Kirsanow are "right-leaning," so that's something.)

January 2019 brought a renewal of interest in the narrative. Wilmouth huffed that "Between Monday evening and Wednesday morning, a significant number of journalists and regular commentators across CNN, MSNBC, and even Fox News have cited claims from a handful of flawed studies claiming that illegal immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than do American citizens." He then added: "One bright spote [sic] this week occurred when FNC host Laura Ingraham cited a study by right-leaning crime analyst John Lott finding that illegals in Arizona are incarcerated at a higher rate." But he didn't mention the fact that Lott's study is flawed too.

Nicholas Fondacaro then rehashed a Fox News appearance by former Border Patrol chief Mark Morgan attacking fact-checks of Trump's speech (the MRC hated it when Trump got fact-checked). Morgan claimed that, in Fondacaro's words, that "it was the media that didn’t know what they were talking about" and that he "ripped the liberal media for acting as their own 'self-appointed experts' who spout off their own opinions." Fondacaro also wrote:

Another liberal media suggestion Carlson picked Morgan’s brain on was their claim that studies showed illegal immigrants committed crimes at a lower rate than native-born Americans. “I've never seen the study either and I pose that to somebody to show me that stat and show me how they can come up with that. Because can I show you the opposite,” he declared.

Morgan was apparently not looking very hard to find those studies. Wilmouth and the MRC know they exist, if only because they're laboring so hard to discredit them with an even more discredited study claiming the opposite.

Wilmouth then touted how "On Wednesday's Tucker Carlson Tonight, veteran Fox News analyst Brit Hume called out journalistic 'fact checkers' who assume that liberal opinions on the illegal immigration issue are facts, and therefore that the conservative counter-opinions are claimed by those journalists to be not factual." Invoking his current favorite bugaboo, Wilmouth added: "A bit later, Carlson brought up the recurring tendency of journalists to make questionable claims that illegal immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than U.S. citizens, leading Hume to point out that, even if that were true, it would not contradict President Trump because he is not claiming that illegals have a higher rate of committing crimes -- only that some do commit serious crimes."

Around this time, the MRC embraced a larger, Trump-approved narrative that all illegal immigrants are scary, if not actively coming to kill you. A January 2019 post by Brad Wilmouth complained that "CNN senior political analyst John Avlon presented another of his infamous 'Reality Check' segments, which is more akin to liberal spin than an actual effort to clearly inform viewers about the issues. The CNN analyst argued against a border wall as he cited Politifact to dismiss claims of 2,000 homicides being committed by illegal immigrants in one year being reported by ICE for FY2018." Wilmouth went on to convolutedly rant about the PolitiFact fact-check:

If one takes a look at the Politifact article he cited, it reads like another lame fact check that the site has become famous for that spins for liberals. The analysis has a point in that the 2,000 homicides cited do not actually come from 2018 since illegals who commit homicides are usually deported after they have spent years serving their sentences in prison, so the total number of homicides committed by illegal aliens in 2018 or any particular year is still unclear.

But the fact-checking site also bizarrely tried to suggest that many homicides were not so bad since not all homicides are actually murders. But legal justifiable homicides tend to make up only a small portion of total homicides, and manslaughter cases are still serious matters in which someone died even if they do not fit the legal definition of murder.

Additionally, if the site had bothered to check numbers for previous years, there were at least a couple of years -- 2011 and 2012 -- when the Obama administration reported a number of homicide cases processed by ICE as being well over 1,000, suggesting that numbers between 1,000 and 2,000 may actually be typical and reflective of how many homicides are committed by illegals each year.

And, in FY2017, ICE processed illegal immigrants who had similarly committed almost 1,900 homicides.

And, in a country where over the past 20 years the total number of homicides nationwide tends to vary between 14,000 and 17,000 a year, such numbers from illegal immigrants would represent a substantial chunk -- and probably a disproportionately high portion -- of the nation's homicides.

Actually, the PolitiFact article debunks the claim a lot more than Wilmouth would admit, further explaining that "those offenses could have been accumulated over many years — not just 2017 — and didn’t necessarily happen the same year ICE arrested these people. In addition, a homicide could be a murder, but it could also be an accidental killing. Finally, ICE didn’t pick any of these folks up for murder; it picked them up for being in violation of the nation’s immigration laws." The number also doesn't reflect when homicide charges are dropped.

The next day, the MRC dropped any subtlety on the issue with a headline screaming "Seven Horrific Crimes by Illegal Immigrants that Networks BURIED." In it, Bill D'Agostino insisted that all crimes by illegal immigrants demand national news coverage -- no matter how minor, apparently -- because, duh, they're illegals:

Crimes perpetrated by illegal aliens deserve attention because, by their very nature, all of them theoretically could have been prevented with sufficient enforcement of existing laws. Even if the crime rate among illegal aliens were a fraction of that among the native population, those few offenses still committed would be otherwise avoidable if the culprits had been either deported or prevented from entering in the first place.

MRC analysts examined Nexis transcripts of all network evening news coverage from 2018 and compiled the following list of some of the most heinous crimes committed by unlawful residents over the past year. None of these stories received even a second of evening news coverage – with the exception of the Colorado Spring Wildfire, which the networks briefly covered without mentioning the accused’s immigration status.

As usual, the MRC "study" is limited only to CBS, NBC and ABC -- because it's easier to monitor only a half-hour of programming a day -- and ignored its favorite channel, Fox News, completely.

* * *

This MRC narrative continues to be discredited to this day. One study published in October 2020 found that not only does the presence of undocumented immigrants in metropolitan areas not increase the overall crime rate, it may actually reduce the rate. And another study published in December 2020 found that undocumented immigrants in Texas were less than half as likely to be arrested for violent crimes or drug offenses and less than a quarter as likely to be arrested for property crimes."

Neither Wilmouth nor anyone else at the MRC has said a word about them, even in in an attempt to debunk -- but neither have they told readers that these studies further discredit the narrative they've been pushing for the past few years.

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