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Trump in Michigan: What data says about illegal immigration, crime and economy

Former President Donald Trump
Former President Donald Trump will be in Grand Rapids Tuesday afternoon to take aim at President Joe Biden’s U.S.-Mexico border policies. (lev radin / Shutterstock.com)
  • Former President Donald Trump returns to Michigan Tuesday with immigration speech in Grand Rapids
  • Trump and President Joe Biden have long clashed on border policy, but Grand Rapids murder brings debate to Michigan
  • In Michigan, about 1% of population is in state illegally; data shows immigrants less likely to commit crimes

April 2: Trump in Michigan blasts ‘border bloodbath. Here are the facts

Former President Donald Trump is bringing the emotional immigration debate to Michigan, where a murder case involving a previously deported immigrant is igniting calls for better border security. 

Trump’s planned campaign speech in Grand Rapids on Tuesday is expected to criticize southern border policies under Democratic President Joe Biden. 

His visit follows the March 22 murder of Ruby Garcia, 25, a Grand Rapids resident who prosecutors allege was shot by Brandon Ortiz-Vite, her romantic partner who was in the U.S. illegally after being deported.

Related:

In a Monday radio interview with Justin Barclay on 910AM Superstation, Trump said immigration is the “No. 1 issue” of the 2024 election, where he’s expected to face Biden in a 2020 rematch for the presidency. 

Trump claimed Biden isn’t doing enough to secure the southern border and prevent crimes like Garcia’s murder, telling the station, “we're ending up with a country that's going to be loaded up with criminals at levels that the police won't even be able to handle.” 

Trump’s critics say he and his allies are making a bad situation worse with his rhetoric, pointing to Republicans’ rejection of a bipartisan border deal in February that aimed to reduce illegal crossings.

“Donald Trump is coming to Grand Rapids to do what he does best: divide, distract, and fearmonger, instead of doing something to address the issues that actually matter to Michiganders,” said Alyssa Bradley, the Michigan communications director for Biden’s campaign. 

So amid all the rhetoric, here are the facts about immigration rates, crime, economic impact and politics in Michigan.

Why the focus on Michigan? 

The murder of Garcia on March 22 murder brought national political debates over security at the U.S.-Mexico border to west Michigan.

Garcia was found dead with multiple gunshot wounds on the shoulder of U.S. 131. Ortiz-Vite, also 25, faces charges for killing her in what authorities called a "domestic violence homicide" that stemmed from their romantic relationship. 

News of Garcia’s murder gained traction nationally after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement revealed Ortiz-Vite, a longtime Kent County resident, was in the U.S. illegally. 

He was deported to Mexico in 2020, but at some point re-entered the country without legal permission. The case quickly became a rallying cry for conservatives. 

“Ruby’s family would not be facing this sad reality had the system not failed to ensure an illegal immigrant with an arrest record couldn’t enter the country,” Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, said in a recent statement. 

Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker, a Republican, last week noted it is the county’s second homicide in 10 months involving an immigrant. 

Last month, a jury found Luis Bernal-Sosa, a Mexican national, guilty of the shooting death of the mother of his infant child, Leah Marie Gomez, 22, on May 31, 2023, near downtown Grand Rapids.

Democrats and others say the tragedy of the deaths and domestic violence is being overshadowed by politics.

Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks, a Grand Rapids Democrat, said Garcia’s death became even more tragic when it was “co-opted by those wishing to score political points by stoking fear, xenophobia and division.” 

How many immigrants are in Michigan illegally?

Nationwide, about 10.5 million people live in the United States without legal authorization — double the number from 1995, but roughly the same as 2017, when Trump was president, according to the Pew Research Center.

In Michigan, about 91,000 people are in the state without authorization, about 1.2% of the state’s population, according to the nonpartisan research firm Migration Policy Institute.

What about legal immigration?

The number of immigrants legally allowed to enter Michigan, including those granted green cards and refugee or asylum status, had not risen dramatically under Biden as of 2022, according to the most recent federal data available.

In 2022, Michigan took in 1,143 refugees, 10th per capita among all states. That’s three fewer refugees than came to Michigan in 2019 under Trump.

Those figures were much higher under former President Barack Obama, with more than 3,000 refugees coming into Michigan each year between 2013 and 2016.

Are immigrants more likely to commit crimes?

No, and most research indicates they are actually less likely to commit crimes, regardless of their legal status, according to a 2019 study by the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University.

A February study by the libertarian Cato Institute also found that people who are in the country illegally have lower conviction rates for homicide than native-born residents.

“Few people are murderers, and illegal immigrants are statistically less likely to be murderers,” read the study.  

“Still, some illegal immigrants do commit homicide, and that statistical fact is no comfort to victims and their families. More importantly, nobody should expect the statistics to comfort individuals affected by violent crime.” 

Republicans and others contend that those who break immigration law could be willing to break other laws as well.

"The need for strong leadership and strong immigration policies has never been more clear," House Republican Floor Leader Bryan Posthumus, R-Cannon Township, said in a statement. “I'm glad to see the president return to Michigan for what I'm sure will be a very necessary reminder: laws protect the people. They must be enforced.”

Does Michigan have sanctuary cities?

State Republicans have called for policies that would delineate between legal and illegal immigration, including banning so-called “sanctuary cities” that do not fully comply with U.S. immigration policies and enforcement.

Those bills have stalled in the Democratic-majority Michigan Legislature. 

The nonprofit Center for Immigration Studies lists the counties of Ingham, Kalamazoo, Wayne and Kent as sanctuary communities, although Kent County officials dispute the designation. 

Lansing’s City Council at one point declared itself a sanctuary city, but reversed that designation in a later vote. East Lansing formally became a sanctuary city in January 2023. Detroit and Ann Arbor have passed resolutions declaring themselves as “welcoming cities” to immigrants.

Why is border security such a big issue? 

Immigration has long been a top campaign issue for Trump, who proposed building a southern border wall as part of his winning 2016 campaign. 

Since Biden took office, illegal border crossings have averaged about 2 million per year, the highest level in history, according to the Washington Post

Efforts to stem the tide have fallen flat in Congress, where a bipartisan deal to curb illegal crossings while providing aid to Ukraine collapsed in the U.S. Senate after Trump and other conservatives criticized the deal. 

That plan would have added additional border agents, installed drug-detection machines and created emergency protocols for border backlogs. 

Trump took credit for the deal falling apart. Published reports indicate he urged senators to vote against the legislation to deny Biden an election-year victory.

“It’s unconscionable that he would now come in and say that the problem is not solved when he's the reason why,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said on Friday.

How do politics enter the equation?

Michigan is one of a handful of battleground states that could decide the White House. Trump hopes immigration will swing voters on the fence to him, said Ken Kollman, a political science professor at the University of Michigan.

 “It’s a pretty classic instance of Trump trying to raise the salience of an issue that he thinks is to his advantage,” Kollman said. 

The stakes are particularly high in west Michigan, which could be up for grabs. Kent County had been reliably Republican for years, but Biden beat Trump by 21,000 votes there in 2020.

Last week, longtime GOP political strategist John Yob wrote in a memo that Garcia’s murder will move “historically centrist Republicans in west Michigan who were torn in recent presidential elections firmly into President Trump’s corner.”

“The massive problem at the border and corresponding media attention is now on the verge of turning these ‘soccer moms’ into ‘security moms’ in west Michigan and changing their perspective in the presidential race,” Yob wrote.

“One case is a terrible tragedy, two cases is an unacceptable trend that voters will not easily accept.”

How do immigrants impact the state? 

State officials say foreign-born residents wield significant economic power in Michigan: Refugees and immigrants hold a 90% job retention rate in the state, and immigrants hold an estimated $18 billion in spending power.

Encouraging immigration to Michigan was cited as a potential fix for the state’s population woes, with a Whitmer-backed council calling for incentives to attract more new arrivals — including developing a service to help employers and immigrants navigate the bureaucracy of immigration to come to Michigan.

Brinks, the Senate majority leader, called immigrants of all statuses “a net-positive to our economy, public safety, culture and community.”

Some advocates have called for making it easier for immigrants to get drivers’ licenses regardless of their legal status, arguing that it would offer immigrants dignity and help them go about their daily lives without fear. 

Since 2008, Michigan law has banned residents who aren’t in the nation legally from receiving driver licenses. Efforts to change the law have gone nowhere.

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