Criminal Immigrants?

Americans believe newcomers "legal and illegal" are more likely to commit crimes. Research suggests the opposite is true.


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Do immigrants commit more than their share of crimes? Most Americans think so. In a 2010 poll conducted for KSL-TV in Utah, 62 percent of respondents "definitely" or "probably" agreed that illegal immigrants are responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime. Asked whether "more immigrants cause higher crime rates" in the National Opinion Research Center's 2000 General Social Survey, 25 percent of respondents said this was "very likely" and an additional 48 percent answered "somewhat likely." And a 2007 poll conducted on behalf of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice reported that 62 percent of Americans associate illegal immigration with higher crime rates.

The criminality of newcomers to America's shores is a sticking point in the immigration debate, one that anti-immigrant think tanks such as the Center for Immigration Studies and the Federation for American Immigration Reform often return to. Just one problem: It's not real.

In fact, most research, such as a 2008 report by University of California sociologist Ruben Rumbaut for the Police Foundation National Conference, finds that immigrants, including undocumented ones, are less prone to crime than are native-born Americans. Rumbaut finds that the incarceration rate of American-born males between 18 and 39 years of age was five times the rate of foreign-born males, and finds similar conclusions in a survey of other studies on the topic.

A 2008 study by researchers at the Public Policy Institute of California found that "the foreign-born, who make up about 35 percent of the adult population in California, constitute only about 17 percent of the adult prison population." They further noted, "U.S.-born adult men are incarcerated at a rate over two-and-a-half times greater than that of foreign-born men." A 2010 report from the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice observed that, between 1991 and 2008, when an unprecedented 3.7 million foreign-born people-about a third of whom were "unauthorized" immigrants-moved to California, the state's violent crime rate fell by 55 percent.

The national violent crime rate, according to data from the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics, also has fallen by more than 70 percent since its peak in 1993 even as the number of immigrants, legal and undocumented, residing in the land of the free swelled from 20 to 40 million over the past two decades.

There are a few studies that do find a correlation between immigration and higher property crime rates. Using county-level crime and immigration data between 1980 and 2000, Northwestern University researcher Jorg Spenkuch calculates that "a ten percent increase in the share of immigrants-roughly one percentage point based on numbers from the 2000 Census-is estimated to lead to an increase in the property crime rate of circa 1.2 percent, while the rate of violent crimes remains essentially unaffected."

In 2008, Arizona started enforcing its Legal Arizona Workers Act (LAWA), which imposed sanctions on businesses that hired undocumented workers. As a consequence of LAWA, lots of young noncitizen male Mexican migrants left the state. Using data generated by this natural experiment for his 2013 study, University of Cincinnati criminal justice researcher Aaron Chalfin finds, "After 2008, Arizona's crime rate (particularly its property crime rate) declined by approximately 10 percent implying that the decline in the foreign-born Mexican share induced by LAWA resulted in a decline in property crimes of more than 20 percent."

Despite the evidence, Americans continue to believe that more immigrants equal more crime of all kinds. But researchers are delving deeper into the data and finding support for a surprising new theory. In 2010, Social Science Quarterly published a study of immigrant populations in America's larger cities. It suggested that "growth in immigration may have been responsible for part of the precipitous crime drop of the 1990s."

That theory is buttressed by a new study from a team of researchers led by Saint Louis University sociologist Michael Vaughn. That study aims to get beyond the "immigrant paradox" in which immigrants are more socially disadvantaged yet less likely to commit crimes. They probe "the full depth of antisocial behavior" using data from the National Epidemiological Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC). Since there were two surveys, there is data on changes in antisocial behavior adjusting for the length of time immigrants had lived in the United States.

Good old-fashioned "root causes" sociology would suggest that since immigrants are more likely to be male, poor, young, urban, and less educated, they should be more prone to antisocial behavior. Yet this study reports that they are considerably less antisocial than native-born Americans. This finding applies to immigrants from Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America.

The NESARC asks participants to self-report on 31 antisocial behaviors including bullying, hurting animals, staying out late without permission, shoplifting, and starting fights. "Across the board, the prevalence of antisocial behavior among native-born Americans was greater than that of immigrants," find the researchers. According to the survey, immigrants were particularly less likely than native-borns to engage in behaviors that could hurt others, truancy, staying out late without permission, quitting a job without options, shoplifting, or doing something for which they could get arrested. Native-borns were four times more likely to report violent behavior than Asian or African immigrants and three times more likely than Latin American immigrants. European immigrants were only about a third less likely to engage in violence than native-borns.

Why might immigrants be more tractable? Fear of deportation would tend to make people behave, but it could also be that the sort of person who has the gumption to seek a better life in another country may already have the self-discipline to rein in antisocial behavior.

In any case, these findings prompt Vaughn and his colleagues to speculatively ask, "If increased immigration lowers the crime rate, then can immigration be thought of as a crime prevention strategy?"

Maybe, but the effect would only be temporary. Every year that an immigrant lives in the U.S. is associated with a 1.9 and 0.9 percent increase in nonviolent and violent crime respectively. Their data also show that the behaviors of the children of immigrants over time begin to resemble that of native-borns. In other words, assimilation means adopting the social (or antisocial) norms of native-born Americans.

An old joke goes: My family has been having problems with immigrants ever since we got to this country. Natives have always viewed newcomers with suspicion, even when they are frequently descended from relatively recent arrivals themselves.

"The continued indictment for criminality of those just arrived is as old as the history of our country, and has been directed, during each period, with greatest vehemence against that national group whose migration here has been the most recent and the most marked," observed a 1931 Michigan Law Review article. Citing the determinations of the congressional Dillingham Commission (1911) on immigration 20 years earlier, the article added, "All the evidence then available indicated a lesser criminality on the part of the immigrant group as a whole. Succeeding studies have supported this conclusion."

They still do.