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Who was more likely to be incarcerated in 2015: An Immigrant or a Person Born in the USA? (Fact Check)

Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau released fresh data from its annual American Community Survey that describe the U.S. population in 2015 in considerable detail. The American Factfinder website very handily archives this data and makes it available through guided or customized search. Go ahead and visit American Factfinder, then search for a table titled “CHARACTERISTICS OF THE GROUP QUARTERS POPULATION BY GROUP QUARTERS TYPE.”

That table sounds dry and uninteresting, but it contains a nugget of gold for any voter who wants to fact-check claims being made lately about immigrants.  Press releases from the likes of Senator Orrin Hatch and speeches from the likes of Donald Trump have been asserting over and over this year that immigrants to the United States are dangerous and liable to commit crimes.  Of course, it is possible to find tragic stories of crimes committed by immigrants to the United States, just as it is possible to find tragic stories of crimes committed by people born in the United States.  But individual stories are a basis for witch hunts, not policy. Claims about immigrants as a source of crime are strong in their accusation and as such need to be evaluated on the basis of organized, consistent, large-scale evidence.

Data from this table reveal an important trend for 2015: immigrants make up a lower share of people held in adult corrections facilities in the United States than their share of the U.S. population.  “Native born” Americans — those born in the United States — made up 86.5% of the U.S. population in the 2015, but made up 91.9% of those housed in adult correctional facilities in the United States in 2015.  The “foreign born” immigrants to the United States made up 13.5% of the U.S. population in 2015, but made up only 8.1% of those housed in adult correctional facilities in the U.S. in 2015:

Immigration and Incarceration Rate Data for 2015 from the American Community Survey

This pattern matches findings from previous years compiled for the National Bureau of Economic Research.  The current hype against immigrants to the United States doesn’t hold up against a basic check of the facts.

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