Just the Facts

According to the US Department of Homeland Security, in 2016 there were 1,183,505 “new lawful permanent residents” in fiscal year 2016, with 56% being new arrivals.  84,989 people were admitted as refugees, and 20,455 were granted asylum in 2016. The infographic below from Homeland Security details the dynamics of immigration enforcement actions against immigrants deemed to be entering the United States illegally.

Overview: “Immigration” is a topic/policy that clearly divides the left and the right. There is very little middle ground to be found in the headlines. The right is primarily concerned about “immigration without limits”, or immigration policy that lacks a clearly defined and enforced set of rules. The left is primarily concerned with the humanity of the issue, namely the human rights of immigrants coming to the US, whether they come legally or not. The left does not tend to address the assumed need for enforced border rules in its media. And the right does not usually address potential human rights violations by current US immigration policy, instead focusing on the faults of past, usually left-leaning administrations.

Narratives on the Left

The left is primarily focused on the emotional and humanitarian impacts of immigration policy, as well as the character of Donald Trump himself and the direct connection between his character faults to what they view as bad immigration policy. In the headlines Trump is shown to be a president who is unsympathetic to the plight of illegal immigrants, egotistical, and unintelligent, with a lack of knowledge and understanding of basic governance. The narrative of immigration is revolving around these character traits, and the effects these have on America’s immigration policy and populace. To the left these effects include: a strong, active protest to current immigration policy by the left, and a general lack of favor for the republican agenda from the American populace. Some of the left’s narratives include the benefits of immigration, including prominent immigrants in American history, the fact that most people that enjoy American citizenship are descended from relatively recent immigrants, and the economic growth that results from immigration. Often there is little distinction between immigrants who entered the U.S. legally vs. illegally. However, the left argues that people who are both legal and illegal immigrants should be treated with respect and dignity.

A continuing narrative is also that Trump is stoking racial tensions in order to create ‘white fear’ that motivates his base to support his policies, despite the fact that illegal immigration appears to have decreased substantially over the last decade, and that studies seem to show that immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native-born citizens. This is a continuing thread in the narrative of Trump as a racist, which theleft sees as supported by his historical and recent comments and actions. Outrage has been expressed by the left at Trump for allegedly calling all immigrants “animals”, a statement that was later found to be taken out of context, and was said in reference to the brutal MS-13 gang when talking with law enforcement.

A tweet from Wednesday, May 16th from Diane Feinstein in reference to Trump calling immigrants ‘animals’ was taken out of context, and originally said in reference to members of the brutal MS-13 gang.

The emotional sentiment is predominantly showing sadness on the left with “joy” coming in a close second. This joy can be interpreted as the headlines highlighting the erosion of support for Trump’s immigration policy and the left’s appreciation for this. There are also slightly higher ratings for “Anger”, which can be understood as the left’s outrage at the immigration policies and treatment of immigrants.

Narratives on the Right

The right is highlighting this issue more than the left is, and is a top concern for many conservatives. There are nearly double the article counts on the right as there are on the left. There is often a distinction made between people entering the country legally vs. illegally, and frustration is expressed towards the left for not making this distinction. The narrative mostly does not address the character of Donald Trump, but can be very emotional and nationalistic. Instead it focuses on several main themes:

  • The issue of immigration itself, and how a lack of stringent laws are asserted or assumed to affect the lives of the average American, mostly negatively (increased crime, weakened economy, etc.)
  • Attacks by the left on current immigration policy (protests, threats, etc.), the left’s perceived weakness on immigration, as well as the harm conservatives see this bringing to the US, especially in sanctuary cities. The left is often portrayed as wanting or supporting “open borders” – very different language than the left itself uses.
  • The evolution of current immigration policy and how it differs from or equates to that from previous administrations, especially Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. This supports the narrative that sees hypocrisy from the left on the issue.

A rallying cry for conservatives has been the shooting of Kate Steinle in San Francisco, a “sanctuary city”, by Garcia Zarate, an illegal immigrant who was deported 5 times before the date of the killing. Zarate claimed he found the gun nearby and the shooting was an accident, and was later acquitted of murder by the jury, but found guilty of manslaughter and felony possession of a weapon. This represents to the right the quintessential “what’s wrong with immigration in America and liberal states” story, and many conservative social media accounts use her picture on their profile images as a reminder of the dangers of soft illegal immigration policies.

The emotional sentiment surrounding this narrative is very similar to that of the left. There are very similar amounts of sadness and joy, and slightly higher average amounts of fear and disgust than that of the left. This could be interpreted as the fear of the perceived dangers of immigration, and disgust with these dangers being allowed to continue (usually blamed on the efforts  or weakness of the left to enforce immigration laws and policies).

Fact Checking the Narratives

Immigration is considered a pressing topic by both sides that requires direct attention by any administration in office. Requests for asylum to the US have dramatically increased, just as they have in Europe. There is a migrant crisis in Europe with substantial increases in immigration, but the number of immigrants arrested for illegally for entering the US has fallen by around 50% in the last decade, according to US Homeland Security. However, the US’ immigration policy is a deciding factor in the fate of many immigrants, both legal and illegal. Because the left’s narrative concentrates on the character of Trump, it is difficult to fact check, aside from specific statements. The right’s narrative focuses on the lack of enforced immigration policy under previous administrations, or similar policy that the left never protested. Trump’s “Zero-Tolerance” immigration policy differs from that of previous administrations and is more stringent in its approach to border security.

Trends in immigration, asylum, and apprehensions:

Immigrants and crime: This is one of the strongest narratives and cited reasons for combatting illegal immigration in conservative news especially.

Immigrant crime in Germany: A German government report studied violent crime in one area called Lower Saxony, considered to be an “average” area in that country. It found that:

  • Crime had increased 10.4% from 2015-2016
  • 92.1% of this increase was attributable to immigrants
  • ⅓ of these crimes were by immigrants on other immigrants
  • However, the age of immigrants was 14-30 and were mostly males, the most likely age and gender groups to commit violent crimes
  • Immigrants who had little hope of gaining asylum were “much more likely to commit crimes” – in this study those immigrants wiht a low likelyhood of gaining asylum were primarily from Northern African countries
  • The report stated that these (mostly) young men were deprived of female partners, mothers, sisters and families, which it considered a “civilizing, violence-preventing force”
  • Overall crime in Germany is at historic lows, but drug and weapons crimes have increased by 9 and 10%, respectively

Immigrant crime in America: Studies on links between immigration and crime on a wider scale usually report that:

  • Immigrants, including ones who entered the country illegally are less likely to commit crimes than native born citizens. This data is usually based on conviction and incarceration rates.

  • In contrast to the German study, a 2015 US study by the National Academy of Sciences found that “Immigrants are in fact much less likely to commit crime than natives, and the presence of large numbers of immigrants seems to lower crime rates.” The study added that “This disparity also holds for young men most likely to be undocumented immigrants: Mexican, Salvadoran, and Guatemalan men.”
  • A March 2017 study by the Cato Institute asserts that “Illegal immigrants are 44 percent less likely to be incarcerated than natives. Legal immigrants are 69 percent less likely to be incarcerated than natives. Legal and illegal immigrants are underrepresented in the incarcerated population while natives are overrepresented.” However illegal immigrants were more likely to commit crimes than legal immigrants.

MS-13 is a brutal gang that is primarily composed of Latin American men and got its start in Los Angeles in the late 1980s. The gang is known for incredibly violent acts, including murder, mutilation, and rape. The group numbers about 30,000 globally and at least 8,000 in the US, according to the US Treasury. Between 2005-2014, ICE arrested 4,000 MS-13 gang members, 92% of whom were illegal aliens and 16% had crossed the border at least twice – however, because these are ICE arrests, it follows naturally that the majority would be illegal aliens. The right reports significantly more on MS-13 crime than the left, and generally focuses on specific anecdotal  instances of brutal crimes committed by its members, and frequently connects this group to calls for stronger immigration policy. It is unclear if this group uses loopholes in immigration policies at rates that are high enough to be statistically significant. However, it is clear that some members have entered the US illegally.

The right argues that stronger immigration controls would decrease crime from this gang, and that Obama was weak on enforcement (which has since been argued to the contrary by the right to defend Trump’s zero tolerance policy). They argue that regardless of statistical significance, the people murdered or raped by illegal immigrants would still be alive today if restrictions were stronger.  The left  asserts that would-be informants have not come forward to report crimes because of the fear of deportation, and that solving underlying poverty and educational issues would help decrease the temptation for many people to join these types of gangs. The left also sees the coverage of this gang in particular (as opposed to the many other violent gangs in America) as an appeal to emotion that demonizes Latin Americans and immigrants in order to gain support for what they see as draconian immigration laws.

Sanctuary Cities: It is asserted that crime in sanctuary cities is higher than it is in other cities. The Center for Juvenile Crime data shows that homicide is actually lower in most “sanctuary cities” than “non-sanctuary cities”, and that crime in general is lower in large central metro, small metro, and rural counties. However in large fringe and medium metros, crime is higher in sanctuary counties than other counties. Jeff Sessions quoted a study that seemed to show that crime was higher in these cities, but PolitiFact rates this as “Mostly False” due to misinterpretation of the data.

Public Costs of Immigration: In December of 2018, Donald Trump tweeted that the costs of illegal immigration amounted to $250 billion annually. Politifact rates this statement as false, in large part because the closest estimates are less than half this cost, but the exploration on this narrative goes further.

The estimate seems to come from a report by Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) an organization criticized by the left as a hate group with ties to white supremacy, which estimates the cost at $113 Billion. Criticisms of this report include that the estimates used are inexact and skewed to include many more people, undocumented people are not eligible for many federal benefits, it doesn’t include the benefits that immigrants bring to the country in terms of economic production, work, and community, and that organization is anti-immigration so could be impartial. Politifact rated this estimate as mostly false. Other estimates from different groups include:


The Pew Research Center created a report entitled A Portrait of Undocumented Immigrants in the United States, which outlines, among other things, estimates of immigrant work and services used. From the report:

Based on March 2008 data collected by the Census Bureau, the Center estimates that unauthorized immigrants are 4% of the nation’s population and 5.4% of its workforce. Their children, both those who are unauthorized immigrants themselves and those who are U.S. citizens, make up 6.8% of the students enrolled in the nation’s elementary and secondary schools.


The nation’s labor force of 154 million people includes an estimated 8.3 million unauthorized immigrants. The 5.4% unauthorized-immigrant share of the labor force in 2008 rose rapidly from 4.3% in 2003, and has leveled off since 2007. The estimate for 2008 is not significantly different from 2007, so any assessment of recent trend is inconclusive because of the margin of error in these estimates.

Among states, the proportion of unauthorized workers varies widely: They constitute roughly 10% or more of the labor force in Arizona, California and Nevada, but less than 2.5% in most Midwest and Plains states. They are especially likely to hold low-skilled jobs and their share of some of those occupations has grown. In 2008, 17% of construction workers were undocumented, an increase from 10% in 2003. One in four farmworkers is an unauthorized immigrant.

Other Major Findings:

  • Adult unauthorized immigrants are disproportionately likely to be poorly educated. Among unauthorized immigrants ages 25-64, 47% have less than a high school education. By contrast, only 8% of U.S. born residents ages 25-64 have not graduated from high school.
  • An analysis of college attendance finds that among unauthorized immigrants ages 18 to 24 who have graduated from high school, half (49%) are in college or have attended college. The comparable figure for U.S.-born residents is 71%.
  • The 2007 median household income of unauthorized immigrants was $36,000, well below the $50,000 median household income for U.S.-born residents. In contrast to other immigrants, undocumented immigrants do not attain markedly higher incomes the longer they live in the United States.
  • A third of the children of unauthorized immigrants and a fifth of adult unauthorized immigrants lives in poverty. This is nearly double the poverty rate for children of U.S.-born parents (18%) or for U.S.-born adults (10%).
  • More than half of adult unauthorized immigrants (59%) had no health insurance during all of 2007. Among their children, nearly half of those who are unauthorized immigrants (45%) were uninsured and 25% of those who were born in the U.S. were uninsured.

The Heritage Foundation’s report, The Fiscal Cost of Unlawful Immigrants and Amnesty to the U.S. Taxpayer found:

The average household led by an undocumented immigrant without a high school degree in 2010 paid around $8,860 in taxes, compared to about $10,900 in taxes paid by a household led by a non-immigrant without a high school degree.

Overall, households of all educational levels led by undocumented immigrants paid about $10,300 in 2010, according to Heritage.

Fact Checking resources:

What do you think? How has the immigration narrative affected your political leanings, and vice versa? Please leave your respectful comments in the box below.