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NYC brawl video triggered fears of migrant crime wave. But numbers say otherwise

Texas Gov. Greg Abbot says he has transported more than 100,000 migrants from his state to cities around the country — sanctuary cities, he calls them.

The arrival of so many people has overwhelmed aid networks in many northern and western cities that aren’t set up for it, and, now it’s sparking fears of a looming crime wave in many of these places. 

A recent brawl in New York City made headlines, as did Mayor Eric Adams joining a raid on an alleged robbery ring. 

So, are such fears justified? Weihua Li dug into the data to find out. She is a data reporter for the Marshall Project.

Full interview

WEIHUA LI: So we've seen that since 2020 Texas has been bussing a lot of migrants to northern cities like D.C., New York and Chicago. And of course, Texas is not only a state that's doing it, Arizona is one of them as well. And as a result, a lot of cities are really struggling with, you know, providing resource to migrants. And recently, we're seeing increasingly a lot of the narratives are leaning towards thinking that migrants are bringing more crime to the city and making these cities more dangerous using New York City as an example. Many people have seen a video of migrants getting into a brawl with NYPD police officers at Times Square and that was something that really seem to hit a nerve for many people who already think that you know, their cities shouldn't be dealing with the influx of migrants. We also saw that in New York City Mayor Eric Adams has joined the NYPD on these rates that were trying to bust migrant gains. So that really increase the rhetoric around immigration and crime and all of those prompt us to wanting to look into the crime data and see what they can tell us.

LAUREN GILGER: OK, so let's talk about the data that you dug up here. You looked at this idea of linking immigrants and migrants and, and crime, this idea of a migrant crime wave. We've seen so many headlines describing this moment. What did you find?

LI: Of course. So we look at data that's been compiled by the Council on criminal justice, which is a think tank that's been gathering crime data from more than three dozen cities across the country. And the four cities that we focus on in this piece were New York, Chicago, Denver and Washington, D.C. These are four cities that, according to Texas governor's office, have received more than 10,000 migrants from the state's bussing programs. And when we plotted out these cities, crime trends and really added time stamps of one migrants started to enter the city, what we really found was there's no direct link of the influx of migrants and an increase of crime in a lot of these cities like New York and Chicago. We did see an increase in robberies and shoplifting, but those trends have started in 2021 long before any of the migrants has been bused into the city's borders. 

GILGER: Tell us, you know, what is behind the recent uptake in certain kinds of crime. We saw sort of crime patterns shift during the pandemic and things seem to be sort of coming back to a different stable level that maybe was more true before the pandemic disrupted things. Where do we stand now in a lot of crime data?

LI: That's a really good question. And the answer is really depending on what kind of crime we're looking at. On the bigger level, we're seeing a larger return to normal return to pre-pandemic trend across the board. Using homicide as example, during the pandemic, we saw a 30% increase in murders across the country. And, you know, since the beginning of the pandemic, that number has slowly been decreasing. And by 2022, it's almost around the pre pandemic levels. Similarly to a lot of crimes like robberies and shoplifting that we talked about earlier, during the pandemic because people are staying home and stores are all closing, the number of shoplifting really declined sharply. And since then, we're seeing a, a pretty steady increase in many cities, that number is going back to pre-pandemic levels. But you know, if we compare where we are in 2023 to 2022, there is an increase of shoplifting. But if we look further back into say where we are in 2019, really, you know, things are returning back to normal. 

GILGER: So why is there such a great disconnect? It seems between the data, the facts and this narrative that's so prevailing even in these democratic and sanctuary cities that migrants are the ones driving crime?

LI:  That's such a good question. So if you look at the perception of crime and the reality of crime, there's been a really long disconnect and the two trends almost never matched. For example, before the pandemic, we saw a two decade decrease of violent crime. That's pretty consistent. But when we are looking at polling and surveys that ask people whether they feel safer in their community, an overwhelming number of Americans were saying, "no, I actually felt that my city and my community is becoming more dangerous." So that part isn't new. And the other thing is because in recent years, we're seeing a, you know, returning back to normal level of crime rates. There is reality in the grounds that shows us a lot of crimes are actually seeing uptick motor vehicle theft, for example, has been seeing a dramatic increase and people are really primed to believe that crime is on the rise. When you tie that with an influx of migrants and reportings of individual migrants who did commit crime, it is really easy to associate the whole community with an increase of crimes.

GILGER: Yeah, that's why I'm reporting like this is so important. All right, we will leave it there. That is Weihua Li, data reporter for the Marshall Project explaining this to us. Weihua, thank you so much for coming on. Thanks for your reporting here. I appreciate it.

LI: Thank you so much.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.