Innumeracy in Politics, Alleged Murder in SF by an Unauthorized Immigrant, Etc.

Note to the reader: As my posting title indicates, I’m going to address two very different topics in this posting. They in fact are connected, but one of them — the senseless killing of a young woman — is far more important, not to mention attention-getting, than the other. Nevertheless, the killing sparked a bitter debate on immigration policy, and that debate in part revolves around the misunderstanding of quantitative information. Thus I feel I ought to write about both.

Following up on my last post, “Prominent Political Scientist Decries STEM “Frenzy”, I feel compelled to comment on an irony: In my experience, many of those who frantically call for more students to study STEM are the same types who loathed STEM when they were in school, and disdain it to this day.

As someone coming from a math/statistics background, what strikes me most is the widespread innumeracy (quantitative analog of illiteracy) that I observe among people in the public policy arena. As one otherwise insightful NPR reporter once said to me, only half jokingly, “We’re innumerate and proud.”

I’m not talking about, say, differentiable manifolds, but simple primary school stuff like rates and proportions. For some reason, it’s really difficult for a lot of people in the policy area to understand the difference between rates/proportions on the one hand, and absolute numbers on the other.

A common example concerns the studies that cite the number of patent applications filed by immigrants in tech. Well, of COURSE there are a lot of immigrant inventors in tech, because there are a lot of immigrants. What matters is the per capita rate, and it turns out that the native rate is higher. Given the lack of a STEM shortage and thus the direct and indirect displacement of Americans from STEM, that means that STEM-based immigration is causing a net loss in patent production.

Which brings me to the alleged murder of a young woman in San Francisco by a Mexican national named Sanchez with seven felony convictions and five deportations. Again, it’s hard to speak of something like innumeracy in the context of such a sad event, but the subject matter — immigration and crime — does come up in the debate over immigration, and it’s vital to look at the issue carefully. In this case, by the way, it will turn out that the absolute number, not a rate, may be more relevant.

This was the topic this morning in the first hour of a highbrow talk show hosted by SFSU Professor Michael Krasny, with the focus on the fact that San Francisco is officially a “sanctuary city,” meaning that city agencies are directed to avoid cooperating with federal immigration authorities, to the extent allowed by law. Before I get to the innumeracy issue, I need to build the background.

The guest on the side of criticizing SF city policy was former U.S. Attorney Joseph Russonello, who was present for the full hour. On the “It’s not SF’s fault” side were SF Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi for the first half hour, and civil rights attorney Angela Chan in the second half.

Russonello emphasized various arcane points in the law. While I’d say he made the best arguments, he did not present himself well, often rudely interrupting the other two guests and getting into more legal detail than most listeners wanted to hear. Russonello also stated that, contrary to the claims of immigrant advocates, Sanchez’ prior crimes should be considered violent, as the circumstances indicate that he is with the Mexican drug cartels.

Mirkarimi was very polite, and claimed that he, who heads the agency that released the suspect to the streets, did so because the law required it.

Chan is with the Asian Law Caucus, by far the most radical of the various Chinese/Asian political organizations in the Bay Area. She has been active in preserving and extending SF’s (and the state’s) sanctuary status. She was extremely combative, invoking the “R word” (racism) a number of times, and most importantly for the innumeracy point, insisted repeatedly that this tragic case is not about immigration, and shouldn’t be used to tighten up policy, as many are urging.

Chan, in making her point that the question of this murder should be decoupled from the immigration issue, cited research finding that immigrants are five times less likely to be incarcerated than are natives. Russonello said that there are 175,000 foreign nationals in U.S. prisons. In other words, Chan was claiming a rate,  while Russonello was discussing an absolute number. Chan simply could not understand the difference, and indignantly but wrongly treated his number is inherently contradictory to hers, and thus claimed his number must be wrong. Sadly, Chan showed herself to be among the “innumerate and proud.”

It matters. Russonello’s point, I believe, was that the proportion of immigrants in prison is not what a lot of people care about; instead, those people would view it as indicating that without immigration, we’d have 175,000 fewer dangerous people in our society.

In other words, it becomes a tradeoff. In many people’s minds, immigration brings certain benefits, such as a better economy or a more diverse populace. (Personally, I doubt the first, but support the second.). Immigration policy is really a cost/benefit tradeoff. In this light, it’s important to understand exactly what the costs and benefits are, and concerning crime, the Russonello numbers, if correct, must be taken into account.

Now, what about the paper cited by Chan? It was written by immigration advocates, and much more importantly, published by the research arm of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. As such, it is inherently biased, as is so much “research” on H-1B that is actually funded by advocacy groups. The report cited by Chan has NO formal statistical analysis such as computing margins of error, etc.; that 5X figure is especially suspect in that light.

I haven’t gone into this area of immigration research, and really don’t know whether the immigrant crime rate is higher or lower than the native one. If you are interested, CIS, an advocacy group on the other side of the immigration issue, has an interesting analysis, but again, I haven’t delved into the matter enough to say who is right.

What I can say, though, is that for this particular issue, the absolute numbers seem to be much more relevant than the rates. Russonello’s figure is pretty scary.

17 thoughts on “Innumeracy in Politics, Alleged Murder in SF by an Unauthorized Immigrant, Etc.

  1. What I would like the newspapers and gov’t organizations to do is issue statements for Sanctuary Cities like this:

    “You are now entering a Sanctuary City. If you are a victim of a violent crime by a non-registered alien, local and federal law enforcement’s first priority is to protect the rights of the non-registered alien. Your rights are secondary.”

    Donald Trump ended his candidacy when he made his stupid statements. However, the truth is that the Southern border is unregulated and many criminals get through.

    Here’s a short list:

    June 22: 23-year-old Mexican national – Aggravated Felon Gang Member.
    June 3: 29-year-old Salvadoran national – “MS-13” Gang Member.
    May 22: Four El Salvadoran nationals and three Mexican nationals – Assault to Commit Sexual Abuse, Homicide and Injury Crime, Sexual Battery to a Child, Assault with a Firearm On a Law Enforcement Officer, Aggravated Homicide, and Sexual Assault.
    May 6: One Honduran national and two Mexican nationals – Sexual Assault of a Child.
    April 28: 42-year-old Guatemalan national – DUI, Larceny, and Taking Indecent Liberties.
    April 23: 38-year-old Mexican national – Attempted Murder and Kidnapping.
    April 21: 29-year-old Mexican national – Sex Offender.
    April 21: 47-year-old Mexican national – Lewd or Lascivious Acts with a Child Under 14 Years of Age.
    April 17: 23-year-old El Salvadoran (MS-13) – Sex Offender.
    April 17: One Mexican and one Honduran national – Sex Offenders.
    April 15: One Mexican and one Salvadoran national – Sex Offender and Murder
    April 13: 35-year-old Salvadoran national – MS-13 Member.
    April 13: MS-13 Member – Aggravated Sexual Battery and Indecent Liberties.
    April 10: Mexican national – Sexual Assault and Sexual Offense against a Child.
    April 6: 18th Street gang member – Sex Crime.
    April 3: 31-year-old Mexican national – Sexual Assault of a Minor under the Age of Sixteen.
    April 1: 26 year-old Mexican national – Indecent Liberties with a Child.
    April 1: Guatemalan national – Sexual Assault.
    March 27: Guatemalan national – Rape.
    March 24: Honduran national – Murder.
    March 24: Mexican nationals and one Salvadoran national – Homicide and Sex Offenses.
    March 24: Honduran national – Aggravated Sexual Assault of a Child.
    March 18: Two Mexican nationals – Sex Offenses.
    March 18: 37-year-old Mexican citizen – Attempted Murder.
    March 17: One Male U.S. citizen, one Salvadoran national, and one Honduran national – Attempted Murder, and a Conviction of Indecency with a Child.
    March 6: Mexican and an El Salvador national – Gang Activity.
    March 6: 52-year-old Mexican national – Murder.
    March 5: 35-year-old Mexican national – Sex Offender.
    March 4: 26-year-old Mexican national – Sex Offender.
    March 2: Mexican national – Sexual Battery and Stalking.
    February 15: Mexican national – Murder.
    February 10: 35-year-old Mexican national – Indecency with Child.
    January 28: Mexican nationals and a Guatemalan national – Sexual Intercourse with a Minor, Sexual Abuse, and Rape.
    January 13: 53-year-old Mexican national – Homicide.
    January 12: 27-year-old Mexican national – Gang Activity.


    Also try 347,00 Convicted Criminal Immigrants in the US:

    Also they are releasing undocumented alien sex offender in US cities like Seattle – try tracking them in Sanctuary City:


  2. “City agencies are directed to avoid cooperating with federal immigration authorities, to the extent allowed by law” –
    While SF officials are complying with the mandates of the local (sanctuary city) law, in refusing to honor ICE detainer requests, they are however, violating explicit Federal Law. It’s just that our recent US Attorneys General have refused to enforce this provision of the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform Act (signed by President Bill Clinton).

    Also, about 16.3% of Federal inmates are Mexican, significantly more than the proportion of the general population.

    Click to access e1202.pdf


  3. Innumeracy in Politics – Redux

    1) ‘Personally, I support a diverse populace.’ – Norm
    The runaway and unsustainable population growth in California is from immigration – hugely Latino. Latinos now surpass whites and with a higher birth rate Latinos will become the new majority. Diversity is in decline.

    100% of California population growth is from immigrants and their children

    2) A back of the envelope calculation on prison costs of the 175,000 incarcerated foreign born works out to about $9 billion dollars per year (not to mention the damage these folks caused.) This is collateral damage in the worship of diversity.


    • I absolutely agree that diversity should not be “worshipped,” which in fact is typical. And if the vast majority of immigration from now on is Latino, or say Latino and Asian, that too is counter to diversity.
      You seem to have the misperception, though, that I support the current expansive legal immigration policy; I actually don’t. The yearly numbers need to be brought down; there needs to be a requirement that any immigrant over age 5 has at least a very rudimentary knowledge of English before coming here; something needs to be done about welfare usage, particularly for those near or past retirement age at the time of immigration; etc. On the illegal immigration side, there needs to be a policy with real teeth regarding employment; if there were such a policy, I might support amnesty, provided it confers a type of green card that is not convertible to naturalized status (maybe an exception for the kids).


  4. I would like to see a requirement that all elected officials and members of their staffs pass examinations on the law and basics such as math – especially statistics. They throw numbers around with no thought as to their reasonableness. There are far to many reports where the numbers given by a politician in support of his position are impossible, and the person making the statement is clueless.


  5. The basic reason for illegal immigration has not been addressed by any reform proposal. In doing genealogy research I came to the realization that none of my forefathers who came through Ellis Island and earlier would have been granted entry under today’s laws. In one case a child was denied entry even though the mother was already residing and working in the country so the arguments about past immigration being unregulated are not true.

    The only ways a poorly educated person can enter now is under family reunification or asylum/refugee rules. Even the Diversity Visa lottery requires a level of education that is above that of many from third world countries. The goal for families wishing to immigrate is to get the “anchor” for family reunification whether this is by a US birth or by an amnesty.

    These policies affect skilled labor immigration as well. These limitations also contribute to the F-1 fraud and the H-1B frenzy and the do anything to get a visa and potential green card.

    Since the immigration lobby and our politicians have failed to make this very basic observation, the destructive immigration policies will continue.


      • Actually, Norm, I believe that recognizing and addressing the fact that the majority of individuals outside the US can never legally immigrate under current US laws is key to reducing illegal immigration and moderating the questionable activities in legal immigration. If just one member of the family can become a citizen, parents, spouses, children, aunts, uncles, grandparents, siblings, cousins, grandchildren, ad infinitum can eventually qualify for legal entry. In at least some cases, those illegally present can become legal upon the petition by an immediate relative.

        The green card via employment would also likely change as a result of a lottery but not nearly as much as the green card for advanced degree graduates proposal. Much of the EB-1/EB-2/EB-3 positioning is due to the reduced processing times of EB-2 over EB-3 and EB-1 over EB-2. This skews the enrollments at the graduate level. It is also likely to be partially responsible for the H-1B frenzy for individuals hoping to qualify in EB-2 and EB-3 via employer sponsorship. If the path to a green card does not depend on family relationships, education, or career choice but a random lottery, the immigration landscape changes dramatically.

        I believe that if green cards were given to masters degree graduates then the enrollment in PhD programs and people interest in working as post docs would decrease significantly. In fact, I would suspect that foreign graduate degree holders would enroll in the minimum qualifying programs in order to get the green card stapled to their diploma. Individuals would enroll in qualifying programs rather than those they were actually interested in. The demand for H-1B visas would drop in the qualifying fields since a guaranteed green card after a year is better than a possible one after 10. I would also expect it to become more difficult to get a green card via employment under the current rules since there would be far more entry level workers than positions. The not being able to find a qualified and willing USC or LPR for a job would be a difficult bar to cross. This would also have a hidden benefit to US born workers truly interested in STEM careers; since a green card holder is not required to work in the field which he used to qualify for the green card, I would expect a high attrition rate to non-qualifying fields.

        It is unrealistic to believe that family relationships, education, and career paths will ever be eliminated from immigration preference categories. But IMO, it is essential to create a patch similar to the diversity visa (which they are trying to eliminate) open to all; this would be the means immigrants demographically similar to early 1900s immigrants would use for entry. What frustrates me is the “comprehensive immigration reform” does not address the future immigration of the uneducated and unskilled who are a significant part of the illegal immigration problem. It also does not do enough to address the illegals waiting for a family reunification opportunity.

        This issue is important to me because years ago (late ’80s), a distant cousin approached family members here in the US for assistance in immigrating from the shadow of Chernobyl; Although she was educated and fluent in English (worked as a translator of written materials), there was nothing we could do to help her. My grandfather immigrated right before WW1; hers was supposed to meet him(his brother) after a year but the war prevented her grandfather from ever traveling. Even though we – her relatives – have contributed to this country for over 100 years – including serving in the military in every war since WW1 – and would have sponsored her if possible, she could not enter, yet others whose families have contributed zero – or who have managed to get an anchor even via illegal entry – are welcomed with open arms.


        • I agree with all your analysis here.

          I’ve always felt that too much attention is given to illegal immigration. If people don’t like the fact that the unauthorized residents are not here legally, then legalize them! Solves the problem, right?

          Instead, we need to have a national discussion of what we want from immigration. Skills? (If so, are we sure we need them?) “Energy”? Diversity? International clout (the bigger the nation, the greater the clout)? Compassion for the downtrodden? At the same time, how do we avoid imposing too much harm on the people already here?


    • Immigrants and their relatives always think the answer is making it easier to immigrate for people like them. Most citizens think the answer is to stop immigration. The wishes of the existing citizens should come first. The country is full. There will be a persistent drought situation in the wet that can only be overcome by pumping water from hundreds of miles away or expensive desalinization. Why should the existing citizens be taxed to death so more people can come here – especially since the average citizen gets no benefit from it.


  6. There is another non-statistical way that many/most/all people reason, and that’s by abduction. AKA example. If you observe one you assume many. The logic and statistics are weak, but there are pragmatic reasons why this is often not a bad strategy for intelligent agents. And just look how it plays in this case.


  7. When someone says, “What does this topic have to do with H1Bs?”, besides the issue of immigration and labor law abuse, violence does occasionally enter the H1B debate.

    While rare, I know of a couple experiences. In San Jose, a former DBA manager told of how a Russian mob-wannabee threatened him with a beating if he disciplined him for his questionable work hours. He responded by saying any violence would be reported to corporate management and local law enforcement. The DBA quickly backed down and later left the firm.

    In Ft Worth, TX, we worked with an H1B analyst who was pre-occupied with his looks, wardrobe, income and flashy sports car. Didn’t think much about it until he showed up in a story in the Dallas Morning News. Turned out the Dallas PD was investigating seedy activities at a local topless bar. The analyst approached a thug and asked him to murder a federal immigration agent who wouldn’t extend his visa. The “thug” was an undercover Dallas police officer. Somehow our analyst got away and last I heard was still wanted by the Feds.

    People have to realize that many H1Bs and illegal immigrants come from countries where law enforcement is weak. Its normal and is expected to bribe police officials or intimidate business owners or local politicians. If things continue, this will be the norm in the majority of our country. Its already the norm in border areas and other areas of heavy immigrant immigration.

    Another reference is the case of California State Senator Leland Yee. This gun control supporter was indicted on gun and corruption charges. He had ties to the Chinese Tongs crime syndicate. Diversity is great but lets raise the standards:


  8. Prof., re: your comment above that “even many people with math or statistics degrees are innumerate”…

    I am just beginning to explore this alarming reality, the ramifications of which infect science and policy.

    Have you read McCloskey’s work on the ‘cult of statistical significance’?


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