Skip Navigation

What the Race for Santos’s Seat Says About Crime Messaging

The special election to replace George Santos in Congress tells a story about migrants and crime — one that voters should be wary of as we head into the fall.

View the entire Myths and Facts About Crime and Justice Reform collection

Democrats and Republicans have been shifting their attention to immigration as a major campaign issue for 2024. This was readily apparent in the lead-up to this week’s special election in New York to fill the seat left empty after George Santos was expelled from the House. The district, which encompasses suburban Long Island and parts of Queens, is facing an influx of migrants that is straining resources, making voters particularly sensitive to this issue.

Democrat Tom Suozzi beat Republican Mazi Pilip, and both candidates ended up making immigration a central theme of their campaigns. This special election can be viewed as a test case for both parties’ messaging strategies, particularly in swing and suburban districts where issues like crime and immigration resonate strongly with voters.

Pilip criticized Suozzi and President Biden on border security, attributing the rising numbers of migrants entering the country to lax border control. Pilip also accused Suozzi of being “soft on border enforcement” and held rallies near a tent city housing migrants to emphasize the point. For his part, Suozzi offered up proposals to close the border and deport migrants who assault police officers.

As elsewhere, immigration has been a contentious topic in New York, exacerbated by red-state governors transporting migrants to Democrat-run cities like New York. Mayor Eric Adams criticized the Biden administration’s handling of border security, reflecting low approval ratings for Biden on this issue. This month, the New York City police commissioner warned that a “wave of migrant crime” had “washed” over the city, echoing messaging on crime that helped propel the GOP to their razor-thin majority in the House in 2022.

During the run-up to this week’s special election, some media outlets pushed stories linking migrants with crime, even though there is scant evidence of an association between undocumented immigration and rises in crime. Despite several incidents in recent weeks that have been well-publicized by the media, NYPD data does not indicate that there has been an increase in crime since April of 2022, when migrants first started to arrive in New York City. In fact, one recent study found that undocumented immigration is associated with a decrease in property crime, burglary, and larceny. Another study found that felony arrest rates among undocumented immigrants are considerably lower compared to legal immigrants and native-born U.S. citizens. And although another Republican talking point is to blame immigrants illegally crossing the border for the spread of fentanyl across country, research confirms that fentanyl is overwhelmingly smuggled by U.S, citizens — and almost entirely consumed by U.S. citizens once in the country.

As we head into the fall, it is likely that candidates of both parties will try to link immigrants with crime and violence. But doing so relies on the assumption of an inherent higher propensity for crime among immigrants — and in particular, undocumented immigrants.

It is easy for politicians to conflate immigration and crime, which plays on voters fears around public safety. But the facts are much more complicated than the rhetoric. Hopefully voters will not be swayed by misleading statements made by politicians and police.