The murder of Laken Riley--a promising young nursing student--has spurred renewed calls for a crackdown against illegal migration into our country. Ms. Riley was allegedly killed by a Venezuelan man who entered the United States at the Southern border in September 2022.

In response to the killing, Republicans hammered the Biden Administration's border policy: "Innocent Americans from Laken Riley in Georgia to the 14-year-old rape victim of an illegal immigrant in our home state of Louisiana.... They’ve all been victimized by those whom the Biden administration has released into our country," says Speaker of the House Mike Johnson.

While there are instances of people crossing the border and then committing crimes, blaming all migrants for the bad acts of a very few is unfair and intellectually dishonest. That's because immigrants--including "illegal" immigrants--improve our country in many ways and actually save the lives of many Americans each year.

First, as a general proposition, immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans. A recent study that looked at census data for the last 140 years found that "immigrants are 30 percent less likely to be incarcerated than are U.S.-born individuals who are white.... And when the analysis is expanded to include Black Americans--whose prison rates are higher than the general population--the likelihood of an immigrant being incarcerated is 60 percent lower than of people born in the United States."

But what about "illegal" immigrants? (And by the way, I am putting "illegal" in quotation marks, since there is no such term in the immigration law, though here it basically means anyone in the United States without legal status). There is very limited data available to answer this question, but one state--Texas--does track crimes committed by "illegal" migrants. An analysis of those numbers shows that "illegal" immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans. Reviewing data from 2015 in Texas, Alex Nowrasteh of the CATO Institute found that "there were 1,797 criminal convictions of natives for every 100,000 natives, 899 criminal convictions of illegal immigrants for every 100,000 illegal immigrants, and 611 criminal convictions of legal immigrants for every 100,000 legal immigrants." For homicides, the data shows that "illegal" immigrants commit murder at a rate of 2.4 per 100,000, for native-born citizens, the rate is 2.8 per 100,000, and for legal immigrants, it is 1.1 per 100,000.

All this is obviously cold comfort for the victims of such crimes and their families, and if the border were sealed, it would prevent potential criminals from coming here. The problem is, to block the few bad actors, we need to block everyone else as well, and this is where the "immigrants are criminals" argument falls short: You can't look only at the negative effects of immigration; you also have to consider the positive contributions that immigrants make to our country. If you're going to make policy decisions based on how many people are killed by "illegal" migrants, you should also look at the number of Americans whose lives are saved or improved by this same group.

How can we measure the number of lives saved by undocumented immigrants? There is no such data set available, but one rough proxy might be to look at healthcare workers, who save lives and improve life quality for their patients.

A new report from the Baker Institute at Rice University finds that in 2021 (the last year where data is available), immigrants made up a disproportionate share of healthcare workers. While immigrants (documented and undocumented) represented 13.65% of the U.S. population, they make up 16.52% of all healthcare workers. Put another way, immigrants represent just over 3 million of our nation's 18.5 million healthcare workers

The Baker Institute report does not distinguish between legal and undocumented immigrants, and so we cannot know precisely how many of the 3 million workers are here unlawfully. However, the report does break down jobs within the healthcare field. From that, we can see that the lowest skill-level jobs, which include home health aids and nursing care assistance (but not registered nurses) are even more disproportionately filled by immigrants. In 2021, 27.45% of such positions were held by immigrants. Given that most "illegal" migrants would not have the needed licenses to work in higher-skilled positions, it seems reasonable to assume that many of these lower-skill jobs are held by "illegal" migrants (many of whom would have work permits based on pending applications).

Another way to deduce the number of undocumented workers in the healthcare field is by looking at the number of undocumented versus documented immigrants and then doing some basic math. In 2021, there were about 44.3 million immigrants in the United States. Of those, about 11 million (close to 25%) are in the country without authorization. Assuming the ratio of documented to undocumented immigrants is the same in the healthcare industry as in the general population, this would mean that about 750,000 healthcare workers are "illegal" migrants.

While we do not have exact numbers, it's clear that hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants are working in the healthcare field and it stands to reason that they are saving many lives. Given the worldwide healthcare worker shortage, we should feel lucky that "illegal" migrants are filling these jobs in our country rather than somewhere else.
* * * * *

The political firestorm surrounding Laken Riley's death reminds me of another high-profile killing, that of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers in May 2020. The murder of Mr. Floyd led to mass protests and calls to de-fund the police. Conservatives and supporters of the police pushed back, emphasizing the important role that the police play in keeping us safe. They felt that a few "bad apples" did not justify blaming all police officers. It strikes me as ironic that many of the same people who wanted us to consider the police more holistically after the George Floyd killing now want us to judge all "illegal" immigrants based on the bad acts of a very few.

This is not to say that we cannot draw policy lessons from these two tragic cases; only that we need to keep them in their proper perspective. More specifically, we should not look at the negative without also considering the positive.

In the immigration context, it's reasonable to express concern about the number of people crossing into the U.S. without sufficient vetting. However, it is not fair to impugn all undocumented immigrants based on the actions of a few, especially when so many "illegal" immigrants contribute so much to our country.

Originally posted on the Asylumist at