Lying With Statistics

By James R. Edwards, Jr. on February 15, 2010

There's new proof that the Obama administration is soft on immigration enforcement. Fewer illegal aliens were detained in the final three months of 2009. The drop in detentions shows that the new administration is willing to let illegal immigration slide for aliens who don't have a rap sheet. Easing off of those detentions means ICE has returned to "catch and release" for the vast majority of illegal entrants. The bottom line: Fewer illegal aliens overall are being placed in detention, and that's a bad thing.

The opportunity for "spin" accompanies reports like the one on detention figures. It can leave us easy prey for the bureaucrats, spinmeisters, open-borders advocates, and pro-amnesty politicians, because they're adept at numeric sleight-of-hand. So here's how to fend off the spin. The Associated Press reported:

But the number of immigrants with criminal convictions increased to about four of 10 – or 43 percent – between October and December 2009 and is trending upward, according to TRAC.

There was no increase in the overall number of detainees with criminal arrests. The numbers are tracked by fiscal year, which is a 12-month period beginning on Oct. 1.

Remember Mark Twain's famous warning that the categories of untruths are lies, damned lies, and statistics. The important point here, in order to avoid being misled by spinners, was in the AP's lead sentence: "A decline in detentions of immigrants without criminal records led to an overall drop in the detention population late last year." Key point: "overall drop in the detention population." Second key point: "There was no increase in the overall number of detainees with criminal arrests." Third key point: "decline in detentions of immigrants without criminal records." Fourth key point: "the number of immigrants with criminal convictions increased" as a proportion of the total because the total went down. The same number within a smaller total is a bigger percentage.

Here's how this works. You detain 10 illegal aliens and 3 of them have criminal records. So 30 percent of the total detention population is comprised of criminal aliens. Now, say you put 7 illegal immigrants into detention and 3 of them are criminal aliens. That's about 43 percent of the new, lower total. Same number of criminal aliens, but lower total of detainees. Forty-three percent may look impressive until you consider the figure in context – smaller detention population, not more criminal aliens detained, fewer detainees without rap sheets, and the proportion of criminals rose because the detainee total fell.