REPORT: Bureau of Prisons Data Shows Nearly 20% of the Federal Prison Population Are Criminal Aliens

In this Aug. 11, 2017, photo, immigrants suspected of crossing into the United States illegally along the Rio Grande near Granjeno, Texas, are held by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents. After hitting a 17-year low shortly after President Donald Trump took office, the numbers of people coming over the border have risen four months in a row. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)


With the recent (forced) resignation of DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, the crisis at the border has reached new levels of exposure. CBP are overwhelmed and they lack the resources to properly process and house the flow of illegal immigrants currently pouring over the border.

Given the relevancy of this topic, I want to look at some common claims about the illegal immigrant issue and crime.

A routine retort you will hear when you bring up the need for enforcement of our immigration laws is that it’s not a big issue because illegal immigrants supposedly commit less crime than native born Americans. The CATO Institute, an open borders supporting libertarian think-tank, is notorious for this. Their entire existence seems to revolve around massaging numbers to insist that there is no crime problem among the illegal immigrant population. Yet, some still try to cite them as a neutral source. They are objectively not.

Take this passage from their 2018 annual report.

The data show that all immigrants—legal and illegal—are less likely to be incarcerated than native-born Americans relative to their shares of the population. By themselves, illegal immigrants are less likely to be incarcerated than native-born Americans…

…This brief uses ACS data to estimate the incarceration rate and other demographic characteristics for immigrants ages 18 to 54 in 2016. Ordinarily collected by or under the supervision of correctional institution administrators, ACS inmate data are reliable; however, the quality of the data for the population that includes the incarcerated was not always so reliable.


You’ll notice two issues with their attempts to estimate.

One, they routinely combine illegal and legal immigration in an attempt to smooth out the numbers and make the crime rates of illegals seem less drastic. Secondly, they are using ACS (Census) data to do their estimates. Now, can you think of any reason why someone responding to the census might not be truthful about their immigration status?

So, are they correct? Do illegal immigrants commit less crime than native born Americans? At the local level, that’s really hard to tell as data gathering is sparse. It’s logical that legal immigrant populations would commit less crime, as doing so would lead to revocation of their legal status. I have no qualms with accepting that argument. You might even argue that illegal immigrants commit less petty crime so as to avoid drawing attention. I could even buy that argument.

Here’s the thing though. If we are talking about serious, federal crimes (which are the most relevant), we don’t have to estimate anything. While CATO uses unreliable sources (which they admit give wildly different ranges) to attempt to massage out their preferred narrative, we can go right to the source in this case.

Per the Bureau of Prisons own data, nearly 20% of the federal prison population is made up of criminal aliens. No surveys or census estimates needed. These are actual numbers of each individual inmate. This is also not old data as it’s from March 2019.


The following chart lays out not just the native nationalities, but the actual citizenship of all inmates within the BOP system. These are people who have not been naturalized and are not U.S. citizens. That’ll be important to note as we crunch the numbers.

Country                           # of Inmates                  % of Inmates

Colombia                         1,633                              0.9%

Cuba                                 1,169                               0.7%

Dominican Republic     1,425                              0.8%

Mexico                             21,668                           12.1%

Other/Unknown           8,88                               14.9%

United States                144,985                          80.7%

Add all that up and you get 19.3% being non-US citizens. A full 12.1% of the prison population is made up of Mexican nationals.

Now, the next claim will be “well, yeah, but it’s just because they crossed the border illegally and that’s not a real crime.” Nope. Of the above numbers, only 6% are there for just immigration related crimes.

We’ve got some math to do, so stick with me.

I’m going to be charitable and use a liberal source for the total number of illegal immigrants, which is 11.1M. The total population of non-citizen immigrants (legal and illegal) is 22M. Because children make up 22% of the U.S. population, we can conservatively subtract 5M from that number. That gives us a total number of 17M adult, non-citizen immigrants, with approximately 50% of those being illegal immigrants. I say conservatively because immigrants, especially illegal immigrants, typically have far more children than American citizens on average but I’ll stick to what I can easily prove.


The total adult population of the United States is 257M according to the census bureau.  Subtracting the non-citizen population (legal and illegal) from that gives us our final two numbers to compare, which are 240M citizens and 17M non-citizens.

Taking those totals and comparing them to the BOP data gives us a clear picture of just who actually has an out-sized representation within the prison system.

While non-citizens make up only 7% of the general population, they make up 19.3% of the Federal prison population. This means that they commit federal crimes at nearly 3x the rate of U.S. citizens.

I’m going to continue to bend over backwards here and assume that only 50% of those are illegal, given that’s the rate in the general population among non-citizens. Logically, that’s unlikely, as illegal immigrants are far more likely to commit drug trafficking offenses, which make up around half of the convictions of non-citizens. But again, I want to leave no wiggle room here to say I’m fudging the numbers.

That means that despite only making up 3.5% of the general population, illegal immigrants make up 9.65% of the federal prison population.

So, do illegal immigrants commit crime at less rates than citizens? That’s clearly, undeniably not true at the federal level. If it’s not true at the federal level, why should we assume it’s true at the local level? Furthermore, does it matter? I would posit that federal crimes are much more relevant than whether illegal populations shop-lift at the same level as citizens.


In the end, no crime committed by an illegal immigrant is excusable. They shouldn’t be here in the first place. But, it’s worth knowing the real numbers because the arguments for lax immigration enforcement are many.

Few would describe me as an immigration hardliner. I’m for more work visas. I’m not for cutting legal immigration. I’m not against non-citizen residency for current illegals that meet certain standards. Yet, I also recognize that anarchy at the border is objectively damaging to this country. It’s also overwhelming the system and hurting those with legitimate asylum claims. In all the chaos, drug cartels and gangs are taking advantage of the situation to do their bidding.

It’s time for all parties to get serious about the emergency on the border and take action.


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