Lies, Damn Lies, and Fifth-Grade Math

Looks likes USCIS Director Lee Cissna didn’t do his homework for his press conference yesterday. But neither did the reporters who were hounding him.

Cissna was promoting the RAISE Act, which would move U.S. immigration policy in a more skills-based direction. In particular, it would end chain migration, i.e. X sponsors his sister, she later sponsors her mother, who in turn later sponsors her new husband, who then sponsors his sister, etc.

Cissna brought up the recent NYC bombing attack as evidence that current immigration policy needs improvement. His claim was, essentially, that using skills rather than family connections as the basis for choosing immigrants should bring us fewer people who are prone to become terrorists. He didn’t offer data on that, but no one — even those reporters badgering Cissna — would dispute the fact that almost all immigrant terrorists in the U.S. have come here in categories other than the skills-based.

But Cissna allowed the press to change the issue. They started bringing up the usual line that the crime rate among immigrants is lower than that of natives. Likely true, depending on definitions, but IRRELEVANT. Note again what I said above. An immigrant admitted on the basis of skills is less likely to become a terrorist than someone admitted through family connections or refugee status.

If Cissna had fully explained that to the press yesterday, they would have had to back off. But no, he allowed them to change to an irrelevant subject.

It’s really an issue of grade school math, rates and proportions. “What proportion of Group X has Trait Y?”  This is fifth or sixth grade stuff. Cissna correctly began with the relevant proportion, yet allowed the reporters to switch to an irrelevant one. In other words, Cissna, who has a physics degree from MIT, was outwitted by a bunch of English majors who had trouble with algebra back in high school.

The other point is that one journalist dismissed the recent NYC attack as “an isolated incident.” Yes, the 9/11 and San Bernardino attacks were isolated incidents too. But I think all would agree that we must formulate policy, including immigration policy, to avoid such cases as best we can. As I have written before, we must take a critical look at what benefit we hope to get from immigration (not necessarily economic), and how much we are willing to “pay” for that benefit (not necessarily monetary); one such cost is an increased number of these horrific and tragic incidents, even if they are rare.

I hope Cissna does his homework before future press conferences. And NO, I do NOT support the RAISE Act myself; I just support clear, unbiased thinking.

By the way, this is a bit related to my old Bloomberg op-ed, “Software Engineers Will Work One Day for English Majors.” 🙂


20 thoughts on “Lies, Damn Lies, and Fifth-Grade Math

  1. For what it’s worth, it is said the percentage of immigrants in Federal Prison exceeds their proportion of the population. No good data is available for state and local institutions.


  2. “They started bringing up the usual line that the crime rate among immigrants is lower than that of natives. Likely true, depending on definitions, but IRRELEVANT.”

    I guess we have to assume that the immigrants do not influence the crime rate of the natives. Suppose that 100 immigrants come to the US. One immigrant commits a crime. The remaining 99 do not commit crimes and somehow prevent two US natives from committing a crime (one crime each for a total of two crimes). This would be relevant. The absolute number of crimes in the US would be lower due to the immigrants.

    One extreme example would be of a well-off immigrant adopting a inner-city kid that no one else would adopt. It is likely that this kid will commit fewer crimes due to being adopted by the immigrant. The absolute number of crimes committed in the US would be lower due to this one immigrant.

    Another example would be of immigrants moving into a neighborhood and perhaps influencing the natives, especially the younger residents, into patterns of behavior that lead to fewer crimes. The immigrants might remove graffiti and repair broken windows which could lead to fewer crimes being committed by the natives (broken windows theory).

    One article said, “we’ve failed to fully appreciate how immigrants themselves shape their host society.” and “contemporary immigrants tend to come from a multitude of cultures around the world where violence isn’t rewarded as a strategy for establishing reputation or preserving honor, as in American “street culture.””

    The immigrants might have a positive influence on the natives and thereby reduce the number of crimes committed by the natives by an amount greater than the number of crimes committed by the immigrants.


  3. I don’t agree with you that a university education is a good enough filter for Muslim immigrants. Just take a look at the backgrounds of the 9/11 perpetrators. Most were engineers or studying to be one. These people reject the west and want to destroy it.


  4. It’s interesting to contrast the statistical fallacy of “it doesn’t matter how many terrorists get in with a batch of immigrants, as long as it’s less than an equal number of citizens”, with the old liberal saw, “I would rather let 100 evildoers go free, instead of imprisoning one innocent man.” Today, it seems they would rather not risk excluding even one potential cost-saving opportunity. Even if 100 terrorists sneak in at the same time…. At least the corporate heads did their duty by “putting shareholders first”.


  5. Matloff again gets right to the point: one needs to compare the relative frequencies of crime in the relevant groups. Unfortunately the “English majors” often take pride in their quantitative ignorance and eschew educating the public or even themselves in dealing with the simplest arguments.

    It cannot be emphasized too often that the reason “immigrants” have a somewhat lower crime rate than native Americans is that criminal felons are filtered out of the class of legal immigrants by immigration law.
    We’re stuck with natural-born criminals till they die. By pooling illegal immigrants with the class of super law-abiding legal immigrants (over a million additional people are naturalized each year), it’s not surprising that one can hide the disparity in crime rates of illegal migrants vs. natural-born or naturalized US citizens.


  6. Why do you think it is likely true that immigrants commit less crime than citizens?

    The government and pro Open Borders crowd have hidden these statistics from us. My ocassional reading on the topic suggests that the OB crowd purposefully uses the low crime rate for legal immigrants (which appears to be true) with the highly disproportional violent crimes and drug crimes.

    From an Op-Ed in The Hill, April 19, 2017, by Ron Martinelli:

    “To extrapolate out these statistics, this means that a population of just over 3.5 percent [federal gov illegal immigrant estimate] residing in the U.S. unlawfully committed 22 percent to 37 percent of all murders in the nation. This is astounding.

    “Illegal immigrants clearly commit a level of violent and drug related crimes disproportionate to their population.”

    According to one GAO report, there were over 15,000 homicides committed by illegal immigrants over a 3 year period; this author notes a longer period with over 25,000 homicides.


  7. Been a while, but I am a regular lurker.

    RAISE will hopefully make it easier for me to be a US citizen/PR, it is a step in the right direction at correcting the moral shortcomings of America’s immigration history.

    Since 1886 (Chinese exclusion act.), 1917 (Asiatic Barred Zone Act) to 1952 (McCarran-Walter Act) were designed to prohibit non-black-colored immigration, and this structural racism is one of the reason why America has such a deeply embedded white hegemony.

    More international immigration, especially of colored people is necessary for diluting this racial hegemony. Your arguments will find a lot of similarities with the 1917 white-worker rhetoric against the Chinese. Doors of US immigration are still stacked against colored people all over the world – while a white men have walked in on a boat and continue to do so without problems. #resist.


      • Why is that? Is this because of Ted Kennedy’s immigration bill of 1965 which dramatically changed our policies?

        I don’t understand the emphasis on diversity from intelligent people. There are dozens of factors to consider for immigration, hallowed diversity only one.

        Ethiopian Americans appear by all means fantastic, but there appear to be many problems with recent immigrants from Somalia and the Middle East. I see zero reason to import Nazi’s or Islamist extremists. It is only a matter of time before we have another 9/11.

        Why the prejudice against western Europeam immigrants?


  8. “His claim was, essentially, that using skills rather than family connections as the basis for choosing immigrants should bring us fewer people who are prone to become terrorists.”

    A big flaw with this statement is that the selection of immigrants is NOT random. If we start imposing skills as a requirement then terrorists might start gaming the system. ISIS could start paying for tuition for its members, bribe or use violence to force professors to give good grades to ISIS members who never show up to class, force schools to give out phony diplomas to its members, have their own members become professors who can then give good grades to ISIS members, etc.

    International students have been accused of resorting to cheating and falsifying records in order to gain admission to US universities. Its not unreasonable to think that immigrants would try to game the immigration system. Random selection will prevent this from happening. No family connections, college degrees, letters from Nobelists, etc will factor into the decision.

    They press’s contention that the crime rate among immigrants is lower than that of natives appears to imply a less selective requirement for immigration which would be more random than a skills based requirement.

    We might be safer from terrorists by resorting to random selection then by resorting to profiling terrorists.


    • President Trump has a good head start by limiting immigration from terrorist-prone nations. Why should millions of Americans be put at risk to appease religipus extremists who come from, essentially, the 12th or 15th century?

      One of the many negative stories our media ignores is the rise in female genital mutilation (FGM?) we are experiencing. I’d argue we don’t need that type of “diversity”.

      We didn’t start as a nation of immigrants from the whole world, we started with immigrants that came largely from western democracies.


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