April 15, 2017


How big a problem is crime committed by immigrants? (Julia Dahl, 1/27/17, CBS News)

Florida State University Professor of Criminology Daniel Mears says that "good data" focused on immigrant criminality - specifically undocumented immigrant criminality - is scarce. Determining definitively whether someone who has been arrested is in the country legally can take significant effort, and the result might not be noted in all law enforcement records. In addition, researchers often have to rely on arrest and conviction numbers, which may be misleading because they can reflect law enforcement priorities more than criminal behavior. A jurisdiction might see a spike one year, for example, if a police chief or prosecutor decides to prioritize enforcement against immigrants. 

Despite this, Mears and others who study this subject seem to agree that most research indicates immigrants actually commit crime at lower rates than native-born citizens.

According to analysis of the 2010 census and the American Communities Survey done by the non-profit  American Immigration Council, immigrants to the United States are significantly less likely than native-born citizens to be incarcerated. The authors found that 1.6 percent of immigrant males age 18-39 are incarcerated, compared to 3.3 percent of the native-born.

The divide was even sharper when the authors examined the incarceration rate among immigrant men the authors believe likely to be undocumented -- specifically less-educated men from El Salvador and Guatemala between age 18-29. According to AIC senior researcher Walter Ewing, there are very few ways for men in this demographic to emigrate legally. According to the analysis, these likely undocumented immigrants had an incarceration rate of 1.7 percent, compared with 10.7 percent for native-born men without a high school diploma.

One study published in the journal Criminology and Public Policy in 2008 looked at recidivism among inmates at the Los Angeles County Jail in 2002 and the authors wrote that their results "lend no support to the ubiquitous assertion that deportable aliens are a unique threat to public safety." 

This conclusion is no surprise to Christopher Salas-Wright, an assistant professor at Boston University who has studied antisocial behavior like drug use, gambling and fighting in immigrant and non-immigrant populations.

"The evidence is really compelling that immigrants are involved in these behaviors at a far lower rate than native-born Americans," Salas-Wright says.

A paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2007 found that immigrants had incarceration rates about one-fifth that of native-born Americans, and that the difference actually increased between 1980 and 2000.

The reasons for this so-called "immigrant paradox" aren't fully understood, said Salas-Wright, but "one theory is people who choose to pick up their lives and move to a foreign country and set up a new life tend to be healthier people. And they tend to be interested in making this new life work."

In other words, he said, after undertaking the economic and social sacrifice necessary to emigrate, it doesn't make sense to imperil that new life by committing crime or engaging in risky behavior.

Posted by at April 15, 2017 8:28 AM