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Fact or fiction? The myths and realities of illegal immigration

Maybe you've heard the debates on talk radio or seen the e-mail blasts, arriving with increasing urgency as people take sides over Arizona's new immigration law.

You can hardly turn on your computer without tripping over statistics like these: "Every day, illegal aliens murder 12 Americans" and "$200 billion a year in suppressed American wages are caused by illegal aliens."

Or you may have heard some of these claims: "Illegal immigrants cause most of the crime and drug problems here. They don't pay taxes. They crowd our schools."

With immigration reform on the horizon, the Deseret News set out to see if we could confirm or debunk what's being said. Try to get to the bottom of the data, though, and you often find yourself going in circles, finding figures quoted and requoted with no actual source. There are conflicting studies that lump together illegal and legal immigrants without distinguishing between the two. There are reports with outdated numbers and sometimes no real numbers at all. There are government reports, academic studies and statements by groups that have a clear agenda, either for or against illegal immigrants. The claims can inflame the debate, even though many make no distinction between legal and illegal immigrants and aim vitriol at anyone of Hispanic descent. Others have little to no basis in reality. And yet, some of the claims and statistics regarding immigration are driving the push for reform and could end up influencing legislation and the fate of tens of thousands of Utahns and millions of Americans.

So how much of what is being said is fact, and how much is fiction?

Here's what we found.

WHAT YOU HEAR: Illegal immigrants cause most local crime, crowding prisons.

WHAT WE FOUND: A just-completed study seems to refute that and show how wrong perceptions by whites can be. It was conducted by the Consortium for Police Leadership in Equity and looked at crime by all Hispanics in Salt Lake City over five years. It did not single out those who are illegal immigrants.

That study found that whites thought Latinos caused about half of local drug crime. In reality, they caused 27 percent, less than expected, given they account for 28 percent of the city's population. It did not single out those who are here illegally.

Whites also thought Latinos caused about half of all violent crime. Data showed that they actually caused about 26 percent of it.

Whites blamed Latinos for just over a third of all identity theft, figuring illegals use stolen Social Security numbers to work. The study said Latinos are responsible for 17 percent of identity theft.

Again, those numbers are for all Hispanics, not just illegal immigrants. Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank has suggested looking at prison populations to figure how many criminals are undocumented aliens.

U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics data show that in 2008, about 4 percent of prisoners in Utah were illegal immigrants — about the same percentage as in the overall population. In 2007, about 3.6 percent of prisoners were undocumented.

Meanwhile, many specific claims about illegal aliens and crime on the Internet seem to lack credible sources. Such claims include that 12 Americans are killed each day by an illegal immigrant, 13 Americans are killed every day by uninsured drunken illegal immigrant drivers and "nearly one million sex crimes" have been committed by illegal immigrants in America.

Often cited as a source for "12 Americans killed each day by illegals" is a 2006 letter from Rep. Steve King of Iowa in which he makes this claim but cites no source.

King's letter is also quoted as a source for the claim that 13 Americans killed each day by illegal immigrants driving drunk. It quoted an article in, which says a AAA Foundation for Traffic study "found 20 percent of fatal accidents involve at least one driver who lacks a valid license."

Go to that study, however, and it turns out that these are "suspended, revoked or otherwise invalid licenses," not necessarily fake licenses of illegal immigrants.

The claim that illegal immigrants have committed 1 million sex crimes is equally dubious. It comes from a 2008 article called "The Dark Side of Illegal Immigration" by Deborah Schurman-Kauflin, who runs a website called Violent Crimes Institute. Schurman-Kauflin, a popular television personality,says she's analyzed 1,500 sex crime cases in 36 states, profiling aberrant sex crimes, sadistic murders, serial rapes and murders, stalking, abductions, and other unusual cases for police around the world.

She explains: "Based on population numbers of 12 million illegal immigrants and the fact that young males make up more of this population than the general U.S. population, sex offenders in the illegal immigrant group make up a higher percentage. When examining ICE reports and public records, it is consistent to find sex offenders making up 2 percent of illegals apprehended. Based on this 2 percent figure, which is conservative, there are approximately 240,000 illegal immigrant sex offenders in the United States." She then multiplied that times an average of four victims per sex offender to come up with the "million sex crimes" figure.

The glitch here is that 2 percent of illegals apprehended is not the same as 2 percent of all illegal immigrants.

Along and near the Arizona border, a high-profile murder of a rancher in March and the shooting of a Pinal County deputy last month have both been blamed on illegal immigrants.

But according to FBI Uniform Crime Reports and statistics provided by police agencies, as reported by the Arizona Republic, crime rates in Nogales, Douglas, Yuma and other Arizona border towns have been flat for the past decade, even as drug-related violence has heightened in nearby Mexico. Statewide, rates of violent crime are down.

In 2000, there were 23 rapes, robberies and murders in Nogales, Ariz. Last year, despite nearly a decade of growth, there were 19 such violent crimes. Aggravated assaults dropped by one-third. No one has been murdered in two years.

Nogalas, Ariz., Assistant Police Chief Roy Bermudez said during an interview with the Republic in May, "You can look at the crime stats. I think Nogales, Ariz., is one of the safest places to live in all of America."

WHAT YOU HEAR: Illegal immigrants are taking away jobs.

WHAT WE FOUND: The Pew Hispanic Center reports that fewer than 5 percent of the nation's 148 million workers are illegal immigrants, about 5.8 percent in Utah. From there, it gets murky because other statistics don't differentiate between legal and illegal workers.

So you're left with numbers like these: The number of foreign-born immigrants employed in Utah increased 54 percent in Utah between 2000-07, from 85,267 to 131,318, according to the Census Bureau. Utah's civilian labor force was close to 1.4 million in January 2009, according to data by the Economic Development Corporation of Utah. In 2007, foreign-born immigrants represented 10 percent of Utah's civilian workforce, the Census said. Census data also shows that immigrants tend to have more of the lower-paying jobs, probably because they account for 42 percent of the workers with no high school education. Immigrants account for 20 percent of all low-wage full-time workers in Utah but only 5 percent of highly paid workers. Nationally, Census data show that 17 million less-educated Americans work in occupations where immigrants are heavily represented, such as building, cleaning and maintenance.

Of immigrant workers in Utah in 2007, about a third were naturalized U.S. citizens and two-thirds were noncitizens (some here legally, others not).

While a sizable number of immigrant workers are in Utah, it's debatable how many jobs they may have taken from others. Although Utah unemployment is now running about 7.4 percent, until recently, Utah had very nearly "full employment," meaning just about anybody could get a job. In fact, that's been true for nearly 20 years.

Nationally, however, economist Howard Sum, director of labor market studies at Northeastern University in Boston, contends the large supply of immigrants has displaced low-skilled U.S.-born workers. "About 85.5 of 100 new workers are new immigrants in this decade," Sum points out. "At no time in the last 60 years have we come close to this. They're really displacing young workers at a very high rate." But Sum concedes that losing immigrant labor would lead to a decline in the labor force of 3 to 4 percent, slowing growth. Again, he's talking about all immigrants.

Gordon H. Hanson, an economist at the University of California-San Diego, in a 2009 study for the Migration Policy Institute calls illegal immigration's impact on the U.S. economy "negligible." The possible harm, he said, is limited to low-skilled workers. Harvard economist George Borjas says the cross-border movement, legal or not, does depress wages for those low-skilled workers, but it also keeps consumer prices low and helps employers make a profit. He estimates native workers lose $278 billion in wages while employers gain $300 billion.

WHAT YOU HEAR: Illegal immigrants don't pay taxes.

WHAT WE FOUND: They pay sales taxes and property taxes. (They are hard to escape by anyone who buys anything or owns real estate.) The trouble may come with income taxes.

Many people, including some undocumented workers, are paid in cash "under the table" for work without any income taxes being withheld. We could find no reliable estimates about how many may do so.

However, government data show that millions of illegal immigrants do pay at least some income taxes, including those who use fake names and Social Security numbers.

The Social Security Administration has estimated about three-quarters of illegal workers have taxes for Social Security and Medicare taken out of their paychecks — programs in which they cannot legally participate unless they become legal residents.

The Social Security Administration says these payments actually help keep Social Security solvent because they pay in but can take nothing out legally. It's estimated that in 2005, about $9 billion in Social Security taxes was paid by people who filed W2 forms with incorrect or mismatched data, which could include undocumented workers. The IRS inspector general estimated about 4 percent of all W2 forms have such mismatched data.

The inspector noted that the IRS is required by law to accept W2s with such problems. Former IRS commissioner Mark Everson told Congress in 2006, "Our job is to make sure that everyone who earns income within our borders pays the proper amount of taxes, even if they may not be working here legally."

For immigrants who cannot legally obtain a Social Security number but still owe income taxes, the IRS issues a nine-digit Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN). It is not valid for identification outside of the tax system, but critics say they are still used to open bank accounts or obtain loans.

The IRS inspector general said in 2006, employers filed 790,000 W2 forms using ITINs improperly to report wages totaling more than $9.5 billion. Everson warned Congress in 2006 that if the IRS pushes too hard to go after these people, it "may have the effect of driving certain economic activities 'underground.' At least now, we are collecting some taxes in these areas."

Last year, the IRS inspector general found that people who may be illegal immigrants collected almost $1.8 billion in "additional child tax credit," including as much as $60 million paid out fraudulently to individuals using more than one tax identification number.

WHAT YOU HEAR: Americans spend billions to educate children who are here illegally and crowd our schools.

WHAT WE FOUND: According to the Congressional Budget Office in December 2007, about 4 percent of the school-age population nationally is made up of children who are undocumented immigrants.

An S&P Study quoted in Hispanic News put the cost to educate roughly 1.8 million undocumented children at about $11.2 billion, assuming the average was $7,500 a child. Other estimates that add in the cost to educate the undocumented children and the American citizen children born to illegal immigrants puts the number as high as $25 billion.

A Perryman Group report in 2008 emphasizes that illegal immigrant contributions through taxes of various types far exceeds that amount. But experts agree that state and local governments can legitimately note that they bear the costs and the federal government makes the money.

No data is available about immigration status of students in Utah. Supreme Court rulings have said that all children living in America have a right to attend public schools.

It's unlikely that Hispanic illegal immigrants are crowding most of Utah's public schools, given that about one in seven (14.7 percent) of the children enrolled are Hispanic, according to Utah Board of Education data.

However, in some places, that is much higher. In fact, 42 individual public schools around the state have student populations that have a Hispanic majority. Those numbers say nothing about legal vs. illegal Hispanics, however.

WHAT YOU HEAR: Billions of dollars a year are spent on Medicaid for illegal immigrants.

WHAT WE FOUND: Federal law prohibits undocumented immigrants from enrolling in Medicaid and CHIP (Children's Health Insurance Program), although Medicaid will cover a medical emergency. How much money this costs taxpayers is unclear, since some states, including Utah, don't ask the immigration status of people whose emergency is covered by Medicaid.

Other states, such as California, do ask. California's costs alone for Medicaid to undocumented immigrants (for emergency care, including hospital births for pregnant undocumented women) came to nearly $1 billion in 2003, according to Lisa Gray, spokesperson for the California Department of Health Care Services.

Emergency care is defined as services related to preservation of life, prevention of disability or alleviation of severe pain.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 13 states provide state-funded medical coverage for undocumented pregnant women and four states (Illinois, New York, Washington, the District of Columbia) provide state-funded medical coverage for all children, including those in the country illegally.

Again, some states don't ask the citizenship status of the women and children applying for aid, so it's hard to come up with solid numbers on the money spent.

A specific claim quoted widely on the Internet that $2.5 billion a year is spend by Medicaid for illegal immigrants comes from Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, which defines itself as "animated by a low-immigration, pro-immigrant vision of an America that admits fewer immigrants but affords a warmer welcome for those who are admitted."

Camarota says the $2.5 billion — actually a 2002 figure; he says he will be coming out with an updated number — refers mostly to the federal Medicaid dollars spent on children born in the U.S. to illegal-immigrant mothers. Since these children are actually citizens — anyone born in the U.S. is — one could argue that his figure isn't applicable. But Camarota counters that he is referring not to money spent on illegal immigrants but money spent on illegal immigration.

Camarota comes up with his dollar figure based on the estimate of undocumented immigrants multiplied by the average amount spent per Medicaid patient depending on age and disability (a number that comes from the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey).

But because so much of the data about undocumented workers is also undocumented, their total health care costs to taxpayers (Medicaid plus government-sponsored free clinics, unpaid hospital bills) is an estimate.

WHAT YOU HEAR: Illegal immigrants clog hospital emergency rooms and don't pay for services received.

WHAT WE FOUND: The General Accountability Office, a research arm of Congress, tried in 2004 to look at the effect of illegal immigrants on emergency rooms but concluded that "Hospitals generally do not collect information on their patients' immigration status," so an accurate assessment of their effect on hospital costs "remains elusive."

In Utah, hospitals don't track the immigration status of patients, says Jill Vicory of the Utah Hospital Association, including those who show up at the emergency room in labor or for some other emergency care. By federal law, all hospitals are required to assess everyone who shows up at an emergency room but are only required to treat those actually having an emergency,

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, undocumented immigrants are less likely than citizens to use emergency rooms. Kaiser's source for this statistic is a 2005 article in the "American Journal of Public Health." The article discusses immigrant health care costs but makes no distinction between legal and illegal immigrants, so it's not clear why Kaiser added the "particularly" statement.

A 2006 study in the journal Health Affairs reported that total health care costs for non-elderly illegal immigrants was $6.5 billion (extrapolated from a Los Angeles survey of 2,000 families), 17 percent of which was paid for by public sources. It also found that per capita medical spending for illegal immigrant men was 39 percent that of native-born men and for women was about half of what native women spend. The cost to each taxpaying American, the researchers determined, was $11 for each illegal immigrant. A 2009 report by the National Center on Immigration Integration Policy found that 69 percent of undocumented immigrants do not have health insurance from employers.

There has been an increase in uncollected payments for care at University of Utah hospitals and clinics, as well an increase in charity care, says U. spokesman Chris Nelson, who adds that "care for non-U.S. citizens is part of that, but not all if it, and probably not even a majority of it."

WHAT YOU HEAR: "Illegals are showing up with $3,000 of available food credit on a monthly allowance."

WHAT WE FOUND: Illegal immigrants do not qualify for food stamps. In low-income families with both legal and illegal relatives, any food stamp allotment covers only the eligible, legal family members.

In Utah, a discrepancy in the rules that favors families with illegal immigrants is being eliminated. Curt Stewart, spokesman for the Utah Department of Workforce Services, says a prorating has been used to calculate household income for families with illegal immigrants. When Utah calculates food stamp benefits in families where parents are ineligible but children are eligible, a prorating has been used to calculate income and assets of undocumented relatives. So, in some cases, two similar households applying for food stamp benefits — one with four citizen members and the other with two legal and two nonlegal — could have different eligibility outcomes. Workforce Services is eliminating that difference with a rule change.

If a family has two parents who are illegal immigrants and children who are citizens, the monthly food stamp allotment would be for a two-person household.

The food stamp allowance is also grossly exaggerated. Stewart said the average grant is $310 in monthly food stamps. The average family size in Utah is 2.54 persons.

WHAT YOU HEAR: Illegal immigrants are invading Utah in big numbers. Most are Mexicans. In fact, most Mexicans here are "illegals."

WHAT WE FOUND: About 4 percent of Utah's population and 5.8 percent of its workforce are illegal immigrants, according to numerous studies by the Pew Hispanic Center, based on Census and survey data.

Pew says the numbers of illegal immigrants grew rapidly in recent decades but stabilized since 2006. For example, Pew studies put the number of the undocumented in Utah in 1990 at about 15,000, which grew to roughly 110,000 in 2008.

Court records of people facing deportation proceedings in Utah show that just over half of such illegal aliens are Mexican — but people in Utah facing deportation came from 72 countries, from Tonga to Russia, New Zealand, Mongolia and Vietnam.

This March, exactly 1,100 immigration cases were pending in Utah courts. Of those, 610 (55 percent) involved people from Mexico, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

About 84 percent in Utah facing deportation are from Latin American countries (including Mexico). Guatemala and El Salvador each make up about 8 percent, the most after Mexico.

Combining that data with information from the Census Bureau seems to suggest that 70 percent of Hispanics in Utah are here legally.

The way that is figured is a bit complicated. But, first, if Pew's estimate of 110,000 illegal immigrants in Utah is correct, and 84 percent of them come from Latino countries (as court data suggest), about 92,400 of the illegal aliens in Utah would be Hispanic.

Meanwhile, the Census Bureau estimates that about 306,887 Hispanics live in Utah — which would mean about 30 percent are illegal immigrants and 70 percent are here legally.