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Mollie Tibbetts’s tragic death shouldn’t confuse the truth about immigrant crime

Fox News is trying to make this into an immigration story. But immigrants are less likely to commit crimes in the US.

A “missing” poster for Mollie Tibbetts hangs in the window of a local business, on August 21, 2018, in Brooklyn, Iowa.
A “missing” poster for Mollie Tibbetts hangs in the window of a local business, on August 21, 2018, in Brooklyn, Iowa.
Charlie Neibergall/AP

After weeks of searching, police on Tuesday found what they believe to be the body of Mollie Tibbetts, a 20-year-old student from Brooklyn, Iowa. The case — one of a missing white woman — had already drawn a lot of media attention before Tibbetts’s body was reportedly found.

But it has drawn particular attention this week from Fox News due to another development: The suspect in the killing is an undocumented immigrant, Cristhian Bahena Rivera, whom police charged with first-degree murder on Tuesday.

As of Wednesday, Fox News was emphasizing Rivera’s immigrant status. The story got regular coverage on-air throughout the morning. A banner at the bottom of Fox’s website blared, “Tibbetts slaying becomes immigration debate lightning rod.” The top story on the site focused on Rivera’s immigration status — with the headline “Illegal immigrant arrested in murder of Mollie Tibbetts was local farmhand, say police.”

It can be easy with this kind of story, though, to lose sight of the bigger picture: In the US, immigrants are much less likely to commit crimes than their native-born peers.

Take this chart from the Pew Research Center, which depicts the prevalence of criminal activity among different generations of immigrants and native-born Americans:

As the Pew chart shows, first-generation immigrants are considerably less likely to commit crime. To the extent that second-generation immigrants commit crime at closer rates to that of native-born Americans, that’s actually them ditching the approach of their better-behaved parents and moving closer to the American norm of more criminal activity.

Other research supports this point. A 2015 report from the American Immigration Council, an advocacy group, concluded that native-born Americans are more likely to be incarcerated than Central American immigrants, and recent increases in immigration occurred as crime actually fell in the US.

This was found to be the case a whole century ago, too — when the Dillingham Commission in 1911 concluded, “No satisfactory evidence has yet been produced to show that immigration has resulted in an increase in crime disproportionate to the increase in adult population. Such comparable statistics of crime and population as it has been possible to obtain indicate that immigrants are less prone to commit crime than are native Americans.”

This research can be messy, since it doesn’t always distinguish between undocumented and documented status. That distinction often isn’t possible, since the crime data frequently isn’t granular enough.

But immigrants, whether documented or not, generally come to the US for similar reasons — to make better lives for themselves. That creates a selection bias effect: If immigrants are trying to come to the US to find a better job or escape crime and violence in Latin America, they’re simply much less likely to be interested in committing crimes over, say, finding work or creating a safe environment for their children.

Still, as with any large group of people, some immigrants will at times do bad, even terrible things. What’s important to remember is that they do not represent their broader group, at least based on the best evidence.

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