The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
In recent weeks, there has been an upsurge in controversy over crime committed by immigrants, sparked by a recent murder in San Francisco, and by presidential candidate Donald Trump's exploitation of the issue. But as conservative commentator Linda Chavez points out, immigrants—both legal and illegal—have far lower crime rates than native-born Americans do. Even if they did not, it does not follow that immigration restrictions and deportation are the right solution to the problem.
Numerous studies show that immigrants have lower crime rates than natives, a finding which holds true even if you focus solely on Mexican immigrants—the main objects of Trump's ire. Indeed, Mexican-born immigrant males aged 18-39 who lack a high school diploma actually had a lower incarceration rate in 2010 (2.8%) than all native-born males of the same age group (3.3%), regardless of education level (the incarceration rate for native-born men without a high school diploma was 10.7% in the same year). Overall, immigrants are only about one-fifth as likely to be incarcerated for crimes, and the difference is mostly due to a lower propensity to commit crime in the immigrant population rather than to deportation or other law enforcement measures that differentially target immigrants.
For these reasons, claims that we could lower violent crime rates by reducing immigration or deporting more illegals are fundamentally misplaced. Indeed, if reducing violent crime is really the goal, we could shift some of the vast resources currently devoted to keeping out and deporting peaceful migrants and reinvest them in combating violent crime and terrorism.
But let's assume that the data showed that immigrants have an unusually high crime after all. It still would not follow that increased immigration restrictions and deportation are the answer. Even if immigrants had a crime rate, say, twice as high, as those of natives, immigration restrictions and deportation efforts would still punish vastly more innocent, nonviolent people, than violent criminals. Within the native-born population, there are a number of demographic groups that have much higher than average crime rates. For example, a hugely disproportionate percentage of violent crimes are committed by young males, particularly homicides. Other things equal, increasing the proportion of young males in any population is likely to disproportionately increase the crime rate. Yet few would argue that this justifies restricting the movement of young males as a class, or otherwise imposing constraints on their liberty. Indeed, few Americans would support imposing a curfew that applied to young males alone, even if might reduce the crime rate. Similarly, few would support a differential drinking age for men, as opposed to women, even though inebriated men are far more likely to resort to violence than women are. We recognize that it is wrong to restrict the liberty of large classes of innocent people merely because they happen to belong to a demographic group with a relatively high crime rate. For their part, most conservative immigration restrictionists rightly recognize that it is wrong to deprive innocent gun-owners of their right to possess handguns merely because a small minority use them to commit crimes.
The same principle applies to immigrants as much as it does to young males and gun owners. Indeed, it does so with much greater force. Those who wish to crack down on immigrants generally in order to lower the crime rate advocate far more draconian measures than a differential curfew or drinking age. They favor imposing immigration restrictions and deportation rules that consign huge numbers of people (most of whom have not harmed anyone at all) to a lifetime of Third World poverty and oppression.
Given the enormity of the harms and restrictions on freedom involved, they can be justified—if at all—only if they are the only way to prevent a comparably grave evil. The burden of proof that such policies must meet is a lot higher than whatever might be sufficient to justify a differential curfew, confiscation of guns, or similar more moderate infringement on freedom. Yet it is fairly obvious that there are numerous more cost-effective ways to lower violent crime, including—as noted above—devoting to that purpose some of the resources currently allocated to keeping out and deporting peaceful migrants. For example, some of that money could be spent on increasing the number of police officers assigned to high-crime neighborhoods. Unlikely immigration restrictions, increasing police presence has a proven record of reducing crime rates.
Many immigration restrictionists nonetheless claim that immigrants—or at least illegal immigrants—are different from young males because their mere presence in the US violates the law, thus essentially making them criminals regardless of whether they have committed any other wrongs. Illegally crossing the border is in fact a minor misdemeanor under federal law. If you think that anyone who violates the law in any way is thereby a morally depraved person who must be punished, then you can consistently advocate immigration restriction and deportation as "solutions" to immigrant criminality.
But most Americans do not in fact seem to believe that all violations of law are morally wrong and deserve punishment. If you drove your car to work today, you probably exceeded the speed limit, which is also a violation of criminal law. Yet you probably don't think you did anything wrong, much less deserve punishment. Almost every business violates at least a few of the manifold state and federal regulations that apply to them. Overall, the vast majority of American adults have violated state or federal criminal law at one point or another.
The point is not just that most Americans violate the law, but that we believe we are morally justified in doing so in many situations. And, in most such cases, our reasons are far less compelling than those of border-crossing illegal immigrants, whose only other option is to accept a lifetime of poverty and misery living under corrupt and often oppressive Third World governments. The average illegal immigrant is far less morally blameworthy than the average American who decides to drive a few miles above the speed limit in order to get to work faster, or to engage in underage drinking—both of which activities are more likely to endanger innocent third parties than merely crossing a border in search of freedom and opportunity.
The desire to prevent violent crime is laudable regardless of whether the perpetrators are immigrants or natives. But we should find ways to deter and punish the guilty without harming large numbers of innocent people in the process.
UPDATE: Immigration policy expert Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute has a more detailed look at the data on immigration and crime. As he points out, studies using different methodologies have all generally reached the same conclusion: "that immigrants are less crime-prone than natives with some small potential exceptions."