Let 'em Roam

More immigrants, less crime


Despite popular prejudices to the contrary, a new paper reports that immigrants in the U.S. are far less likely to end up locked in a public institution than the native-born, with an incarceration rate one-fifth as high.

The study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, was conducted by the economists Kristin F. Butcher of Wellesley College and Anne Morrison Piehl of Rutgers.It's based on U.S. Census data from 1980, 1990, and 2000. The data, which are not broken down by immigrants' legal status, include not only prisons but also mental institutions, hospitals, and drug treatment centers.

Butcher and Piehl find that the difference in institutionalization rates is not due to a policy of getting tougher on immigrant criminals by, say, expanding the crimes that can lead to deportation (as Congress did in the 1990s). Rather, they conclude, "the process of migration selects individuals who either have lower criminal propensities or are more responsive to deterrent effects than the average native."

Among natives, Hispanics and those with lower incomes do have higher institutionalization rates, a fact that may underlie the common assumption that immigrants, who are also largely Hispanic and poor, would as well. But given that they do not, and given the authors' finding that natives who have moved to a different state also have lower incarceration rates, it seems that the type prepared to roam is also the type that tends to walk the straight and narrow.