Truth-tellers, liars and equivocators

Did a crackdown on illegal immigrants in Prince William lead to a drop in crime?

September 20, 2010 - 03:21 PM
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Corey Stewart
Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart, front, has led a crackdown on illegal immigration. (Photo: Associated Press)

There’s a not-so-subtle competition between different jurisdictions in the greater D.C. area. The District and its suburban counties are often set up in zero-sum games. Either Lockheed Martin brings its hundreds of jobs and millions in construction to Prince George’s, or it brings it to Alexandria. Either the double-income, highly educated family moves to Montgomery, or it decides to settle in Loudon.

So while there are certain things every politician in the region wants — an improved Metro system, for example — it’s difficult for them to avoid hyping their jurisdiction at the expense of another.

Corey Stewart (R), the chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, fell into this trap while appearing on WAMU’s The Politics Hour Friday. Stewart, who is leading the Virginia Rule of Law campaign to implement an Arizona-esque immigration law in Virginia, and has led a push to crack down on illegal immigration in Prince William, was comparing crime in Prince William to crime in Montgomery County, Md., which is friendlier to illegal immigrants. (Quotes come from this transcript.)

"The University of Virginia and its report that goes out in November, its final report is going to show that illegal aliens ... did in fact flee Prince William County," Stewart said. "As they did, our violent crime rate did fall by 37 percent."

"Violent crime rates, however, have been falling around the region," host Kojo Nnamdi countered. "To what extent do you attribute that to the police work that's led to that, on the one hand, or to the fleeing of illegal immigrants, on the other?"

"There has been a long-term trend toward a declining crime rate across the nation," Stewart said in return. "In fact, Loudoun and Fairfax Counties did have slight reductions in their crime rates over the same period of time, but they did not plummet like they did in Prince William County. In fact, the one jurisdiction that stood out from Prince William County and said, we're going to take the exact opposite approach on illegal immigration, in fact, we welcome illegal immigration, was Montgomery County, Md. And over the past three years, their violent crime rate has actually gone up by 3 percent. So, you know, it's difficult to say for certain what causes what but I don't think it's a coincidence that our crime rate plummeted like that."

Is Stewart right? Has a wave of sanctuary-seeking immigrants driven crime to new heights in Montgomery? Has cracking down on those lacking a green card kept the residents of Prince William safer?

It's hard to say. But crime is actually down in both counties. Chairman Stewart's office clarified that he meant the years from 2006 to 2008. This isn't the "past three years," since crime data for 2009 has been available for months.

A look at the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting data used by both Montgomery and Prince William shows crime has dropped in both jurisdictions. From 2006 to 2008, violent crime in Montgomery fell from 2,155 incidents to 2,087 incidents, a 3.2 percent dip.

Prince William did have a 37 percent drop — from 809 incidents of violent crime in 2006 to 520 incidents in 2008.

It's difficult to draw a link between the illegal immigration policies and violent crime. For example, crime continued to fall in Montgomery County from 2008 to 2009, but increased in Prince William.

But if you use 2006 as a baseline, crime has definitely dropped in Prince William in a way it hasn't in Montgomery. Stewart certainly thinks this was driven by the crackdown on illegal immigrants. Here's what he said in an August op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

Both sides of the illegal-immigration debate agree on one thing: Illegal aliens began fleeing Prince William. And as they did, our violent crime rate plummeted 37 percent. Some call that a coincidence. I don't think so, and I am not alone. A survey conducted by the University of Virginia found that 80 percent of Prince William residents agree with the policy's implementation, and that 65 per cent of our 500 police officers have found it to be an effective tool to fight violent crime.

Researchers aren't as confident.

"It's a very confused picture," said Steven Camarota, the research director at the Center for Immigration Studies. Last year, he co-authored a paper addressing crime and immigration. (Another paper from the Immigration Policy Center says that historically, crime rates have been lower for immigrants than for the native-born.)

Camarota said older studies, generally done by academic researchers, had shown low correlation between immigrants and crime, but newer ones based on data collected by the Department of Homeland Security show a stronger link.

Looking at Virginia specifically, Camarota said a federally funded study of gangs in the northern and western parts of the state showed that between 25 and 50 percent of gang members were "removable aliens," which generally means illegal immigrants.

Stewart was right when said crime had fallen tremendously in Prince William, although he mangled the time frame and the comparison to Montgomery. And it's difficult to isolate the impact of shunning illegal immigrants on the crime rate. So it's a toss up.

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    Michael Clark

    Sep 21, 2010 - 08:28:01 AM

    What is the 50/50 bar chart at the bottom of the article? The file name is "TFM Scale"

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