Migrant arrests are up, but they’re rarely accused of violent crimes

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Migrant arrests are up, but they're rarely accused of violent crimes

As 40,000 asylum-seekers have arrived in Chicago in less than two years, a Tribune analysis of crime data shows the impact of migrants has been mostly felt in nonviolent offenses, particularly driving-related and thefts, and few arrests for violent felonies.

The analysis of crimes since Aug. 31, 2022, when Texas’ Republican governor, Greg Abbott, began busing asylum-seekers to Chicago, shows that as more migrants have arrived, the number of their arrests has increased. But they’re typically picked up for traffic infractions and thefts, and any misdeeds they’re committing do not appear to have fueled a crime wave.

Researchers say they’re not surprised by the Tribune’s findings. They point out that most migrants come for a better life, and they surmise that those who end up committing crimes typically steal out of desperation.

“It’s certainly not a violent crime wave,” said Graham Ousey, a criminologist at William & Mary in Virginia. “It is the impact of people who are deprived of resources.”

Still, tens of thousands of asylum-seekers have descended upon Chicago with an immediate need for shelter and services. In response, the city has rapidly turned abandoned buildings and park field houses into makeshift shelters to accommodate them — often without much notice and as a surprise to the neighborhoods they’re in.

Former President Donald Trump has cited national anecdotes of horrific crimes blamed on migrants to claim Democrats have allowed sanctuary cities to become lawless, even as the Biden administration and allies, including Mayor Brandon Johnson, counter that Republicans created the migrant crisis in cities like Chicago to scare voters and score political points.

Immigration advocates have argued it’s a new chapter in a centuries-old playbook by politicians to demonize newcomers, from the Irish to Mexicans. But a rise in any crime — even petty — near city-run shelters can frustrate residents and business owners who bear the brunt of what crowds of migrants without jobs or money can bring.

“We’re simply not enforcing quality-of-life laws around our shelters,” said Ald. Raymond Lopez, 15th, whose Southwest Side ward included a shelter for single adults in the Gage Park field house until the city closed it earlier this month. “Politically, we have an environment that is making excuses for those low-level offenses as something that should be forgiven or ignored without realizing that it has a very real snowball effect in our neighborhoods.”

Despite research showing immigrants have long been less likely to commit crime than native-born residents, Lopez still questioned whether the city’s crime data could accurately reflect the true story of migrant crime. He said residents in his ward are already disenchanted with police and rarely call to report problems, no matter who is causing them.

Officers detain a migrant before issuing a citation for an open container near the migrant shelter at the former Standard Club in Chicago on April 14, 2024. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune)

To be sure, the Tribune analysis has limitations beyond how often crime goes unreported. For example, Chicago police don’t track arrests of asylum-seekers, but rather arrestees’ country of birth. Even then, that’s not listed for 1 in 7 arrests.

The analysis focused on native Venezuelans, who make up more than 80% of migrant arrivals whose birth countries were logged by the city, and whose Chicago census population was relatively small before 2022. Still, that means the figures could include arrests of native Venezuelans here before busing and miss arrests of migrants born elsewhere.

Another key limitation: The analysis does not attempt to compute rates of arrest — or the number of arrests divided by the population. Criminologists caution that rate comparisons can be difficult among migrants and other groups because of unique demographic differences. Regardless, it’s difficult to get a precise estimate of native Venezuelans living in Chicago, a far more transient group than others.

And the arrest data analyzed can itself be incomplete. It is limited to adults arrested by Chicago police — not including juveniles, or anyone arrested by another police agency — and the arrest charges are based on what Chicago police suggested to prosecutors, not necessarily what prosecutors ultimately pursued.

But even with those limitations, the analysis offers a glimpse at Chicago migrants and crime — suggesting real, albeit nuanced, effects.

Here’s what the analysis shows:

The breakdown

The Tribune analyzed available crime and arrest data to determine how often migrants are arrested in Chicago, what charges they face and how their arrests have affected the broader crime trends in the city. The analysis found that native Venezuelans, when arrested in Chicago, are far less likely to be accused of violent crimes, particularly homicides.

Since the first buses arrived from Texas, through the end of March 2024, not one person born in Venezuela has been arrested on a murder charge, according to the analysis. In that same stretch of time, Chicago police charged with murder 247 adults for whom police listed a birth country. That included at least one person each born in Poland, Vietnam and Germany, and at least two people born in Mississippi.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, arrests of native Venezuelans have spiked as their population in Chicago has grown. In the first three months of 2024, police made more than 1,000 arrests of native Venezuelans — about 1 of 9 of all arrests in that period in which police listed someone’s birth country.

But most native Venezuelans were arrested for driving-related infractions in what has become a Catch-22 the Tribune documented in March: Many migrants want jobs but can’t get work permits. So to travel to bosses still willing to hire them, some migrants buy cars, even though they can’t get a driver’s license. They say they risk it, hoping they don’t get pulled over.

In Chicago, in the 19 months since busing began, roughly two dozen native Venezuelans were arrested for driving without a license and causing a crash, the Tribune analysis found. In that same timeframe, the data shows nearly 200 American-born drivers were arrested in Chicago for driving without valid licenses and causing crashes.

Unlicensed drivers, of course, can create dangers on the roads. And unlicensed asylum-seekers — even if a fraction of the problem — only increase the risk, something Eugene Perosko can describe firsthand.

Court and police records show Perosko was just across the Chicago city line, in Calumet Park, when his 16-year-old Toyota Prius was broadsided by a native Venezuelan driver with no license or insurance. Peroski told the Tribune that his liability insurance doesn’t cover his injuries or car damages. So he said he’s out thousands of dollars in repair bills, medical costs and lost wages — and furious that unlicensed migrants continue to drive with what amounts to “a 3,000-pound weapon.”

“You’re actually endangering the public safety,” he said.

Perosko’s crash occurred in the suburb of Calumet Park, so it isn’t included in the Tribune’s data.

Officers issue a ticket to a migrant for parking in a no parking zone near a migrant shelter at the former Standard Club on April 15, 2024, in Chicago. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune)
Officers issue a ticket to a migrant for parking in a no parking zone near a migrant shelter at the former Standard Club in Chicago on April 15, 2024. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune)

When looking at violent crimes in Chicago, arrest figures for native Venezuelans narrow further. In the 19-month span, there were 21 arrests of native Venezuelans for felonies involving violence. Most of those involved allegations of violence against other migrants or police officers coming to arrest them, but there were higher-profile cases, including the March 20 arrest of Elvis J. Hernandez-Pernalete, 28.

In a court filing, prosecutors say he grabbed, choked, sexually assaulted and robbed a woman he followed off a CTA train at the UIC-Halsted stop. That alleged assault came hours after he grabbed and forced another woman to the ground from the CTA’s Irving Park stop before he was chased off by a witness, according to the filing. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

News of the arrest made its way onto the social media feed of Turning Point USA, a conservative group that often faces criticism over allegations of promoting conspiracy theories and offensive remarks about immigrants and others. The group’s post on X cited Hernandez-Pernalete’s arrest before asking its 658,000 followers: “When will enough be enough?”

While the allegations are horrific, Hernandez-Pernalete was the only native Venezuelan arrested in March on charges for any murders, shootings, stabbings, robberies or forcible sex crimes, according to the Police Department’s adult arrest data. During the same month, for those types of crime, Chicago police arrested at least 70 others with listed birth countries that weren’t Venezuela.

The vast majority were U.S.-born residents.

Shoplifting surge

While much of the attention has focused on claims of violence, the Tribune analysis found a much higher than typical share of native Venezuelans’ arrests were for alleged thefts, particularly shoplifting or walking off without paying a tab.

The analysis found the biggest effect was seen around downtown, the heart of city retail shopping. In the past 19 months, for Loop theft arrests in which police listed the suspect’s birth country, roughly 1 in 5 were born in Venezuela.

The analysis found the biggest spike in one Loop beat in December and January, and in particular, the block that houses Macy’s flagship store on North State Street, where Chicago police arrested 76 adults in two months on theft charges. Of those with listed birth countries, more than 40% listed Venezuela. That doesn’t include an additional 95 people that Cook County sheriff’s deputies arrested there in a special shoplifting detail, roughly half of whom were native Venezuelans, according to the sheriff’s office.

Sheriff Tom Dart said deputies working the detail noticed a surge late last year in migrants stealing from stores and tied many to an operation — later busted by deputies — in which ringleaders promised migrants that if they stole enough goods, they could trade or sell them for fake identification needed to get jobs.

A Cook County sheriff's police detains a migrant for stealing at a Macy's department store on North State Street on April 14, 2024, in Chicago. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune)
A Cook County sheriff’s officer detains a migrant for stealing at a Macy’s department store on North State Street in Chicago on April 14, 2024. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune)

“We found that this was not your traditional retail theft that was going on. It was highly, highly organized,” Dart said.

Chicago police data show a notable drop in shoplifting arrests in that beat immediately after the bust, but Dart isn’t sure how much the bust deserves credit for that.

Dart emphasized that migrants — many of whom have traveled thousands of miles and who have very little money or resources — may have a different motive for committing retail theft. For them, he said, it’s a matter of survival, considering that most can’t get work permits.

Experts who track the relationship between immigration and crime say the only time there is a noticeable correlation between the two is when migrants can’t work legally.

“If it’s really hard for them to find a job, they might commit some sort of crime. They need to do something,” said Patricio Dominguez, a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile who studies economics and immigration.

Heidi Joynt, owner of Field & Florist, poses at her store on April 16, 2024, in Chicago. The store sits across the street from a migrant shelter at the former Standard Club. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune)
Heidi Joynt, owner of Field & Florist, poses at her store in Chicago on April 16, 2024. The store sits across the street from a migrant shelter at the former Standard Club. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune)

Some shelter neighbors sympathize with migrants, such as Heidi Joynt, who owns a flower shop adjacent to a Loop shelter for single men and women. She hasn’t seen a negative effect on her business, with even some migrants patronizing it to buy flowers on Valentine’s Day. She acknowledges that some migrants steal but wishes leaders would address the root causes.

“We have an obligation to help people that are in need, as humans and I have a lot of sympathy for what they’ve gone through and now what they’re facing,” Joynt said.

But not everyone running businesses shares that view.

A manager at a convenience store near one Loop shelter told the Tribune the business had lost thousands of dollars to stolen merchandise since the shelter opened.

“Sometimes you call the police or the city and they don’t really do anything,” said the manager, who did not want to give her name, citing a fear of retaliation. “It’s not that we’re anti-immigrant, but this is our livelihood and our businesses are getting really hurt by this. We don’t know what else to do.”

Shelter blocks

On a recent sunny afternoon across the street from that Loop shelter, on Plymouth Court, two dozen migrants — mostly men — stood in the square of Pritzker Park, named after the aunt of Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

Some did wheelies on bikes. Another shouted: “Cigarro! Cigarro!” as he hawked loose cigarettes.  Another man brought out a table and set up a DJ mixing board to blare loud beats over speakers. The crowd danced to the heavy bass.

Migrants gather in Pritzker Park near the the former Standard Club shelter on April 17, 2024, in Chicago. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune)
Migrants gather in Pritzker Park in Chicago, near the the former Standard Club shelter, on April 17, 2024. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune)

A maintenance man swept up empty bottles and cans nearby. They were a half-block from the city-run migrant shelter, once home to the Standard Club, an exclusive Jewish club that had catered to high society for 151 years.

“Since they set up that shelter, it’s always like this,” he said. “Busy, busy.”

Selling cigarettes, blaring music and littering may not be the kind of crimes that draw headlines — or even much of a police response. But they help illustrate what has been part of the most consistent, on-the-ground complaint regarding migrants and crime: a sense of anything-goes chaos around shelters.

One business owner around that shelter told a Tribune reporter last fall that “we don’t feel safe here.” Outside the Inn of Chicago shelter, downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd, complained, “There’s no rule of law.” Ald. Jeanette Taylor, 20th, described “lawlessness” outside a shelter in Woodlawn’s former Wadsworth Elementary School. And Lopez has repeatedly complained to the mayor about crime near shelters across the city.

A migrant sells clothing with price tags in Pritzker Park near the the former Standard Club shelter on April 17, 2024, in Chicago. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune)
A migrant sells clothing with price tags in Pritzker Park near the the former Standard Club shelter in Chicago on April 17, 2024. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune)

Suspicions of wrongdoing— or general perceptions of lawlessness — don’t always correlate to actual crime reports. But when looking at blocks that have contained any of the more than two dozen migrant shelters, the analysis found that those blocks did collectively see higher reports of crime in the last year.

Crime trends are typically measured in so-called “index” crimes — considered the more serious type and tracked by the FBI. Those rose near shelters, peaking last fall. Also consistently high were the kinds of crimes not considered serious enough to be tracked by the FBI, but which often still include types that can frustrate neighbors, such as fistfights and minor drug possession.

Still, even with rising crime reports in blocks with shelters, the Tribune analysis did not find significantly heightened levels of crime spreading much beyond those blocks.

No migrant crime wave

Index crimes typically come in waves, often affected by seasonal weather and, in recent years, the pandemic shutdowns. A quick look at violent index crime levels shows that last summer’s peak was the highest of any in recent years — but that comes with a caveat.

That peak was sparked by a surge in robberies. And a deeper dive into robbery data shows native Venezuelans were rarely arrested for such crimes, with the spike largely blamed on crews of robbers — many of them juveniles, often with high-powered weapons — using stolen cars to rob victims in a matter of minutes.

With migrants linked to more thefts, a surge could have been expected in nonviolent index crime. But that wasn’t the case.

In the past 21 months, nonviolent crime peaked at nearly 9,200 reports in October 2022, when the number of migrants bused to Chicago was just a tenth of what it is now. In the height of 2023 — after more migrants had been bused to Chicago — the city saw fewer reports, roughly 8,700. Even then, at no time during busing has the number of reports reached the peak levels seen in the early 2010s.

In other words, while migrants may be far more likely to be arrested for thefts, their actions do not appear to have fueled a wave of nonviolent crime.

Chicago police did not respond to questions from the Tribune on the analysis, other than to repeat a statement given a month earlier, that it “will take the appropriate enforcement action” for lawbreakers and doesn’t target enforcement based on someone’s immigration status.

Last summer, a top aide to Mayor Johnson, Beatriz Ponce de Leon, acknowledged at a City Council hearing that the city needed to better ensure migrants were “good neighbors” and that they were “not causing disturbances and changing that community in significant ways that are not welcomed by the existing community’s residents.”

In that Plymouth Court block, signs have since been placed on the windows of each shop stating, in Spanish: “No smoking within 15 feet of the entryway.” They also advise personnel and customers to notify the manager if they see someone smoking. And if the problem persists, they must call 311.

Officers issue a ticket to a migrant for parking in a no parking zone near the migrant shelter at the former Standard Club on April 15, 2024, in Chicago. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune)
Officers issue a ticket to a migrant for parking in a no-parking zone near the migrant shelter at the former Standard Club in Chicago on April 15, 2024. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune)

The local alderman, Lamont Robinson, 4th, said he meets monthly with police and City Hall to coordinate efforts, which have included installing cameras on several intersections near the shelter and closing nearby parks earlier. Day and night, police patrol near the shelter. Sometimes officers walk around the neighborhood.

On a recent warm night in the Loop, a Chicago police officer in plainclothes approached a woman sitting in a car parked illegally in a driveway across from the shelter. There was no translator, so the officers, who only spoke English, struggled to communicate with her through an application on a phone.

“So in America, you need a license to drive,” an officer told her.

They couldn’t arrest her for driving without a license, they said, because they didn’t actually see her drive the vehicle. So they gave her an orange Chicago Department of Finance envelope with a parking ticket and moved her car. She held it up in the streetlight, squinting to read the text in the little boxes.

Then she leaned next to a building nearby, as officers drove away.

Chicago Tribune’s Sam Charles contributed.




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