Originally published here in February 2010
My first book was based on my Ph.D. dissertation, and called Crime and Immigrant Youth (Sage 1999). I of course really like it when people read it, even though it is becoming dated. In this context, I read the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) new “Backgrounder” called Immigration and Crime: Assessing a Conflicted Issue by Steven Camarota and Jessica Vaughan in November 2009 with interest. This paper has since received wide exposure in the popular press. In it the authors claimed to do a comprehensive review of the literature on immigration and crime, and pronounce that there would be startling new conclusions about the relationship, i.e. that immigrants were likely to be more criminal than the native born. But then I read deeper. Despite claiming to be a review of academic and policy literature, they did not refer to that which disagreed with their assumption that crime and immigration are tightly tied together. And indeed, their conclusions were predictable for an advocacy organization that explicitly indicates that it favors a “low-immigrant vision which seeks fewer immigrants but a warmer welcome for those admitted.” So even though their report actually develops new data, it did so with one goal in mind: Demonstrating that immigrants are more criminal than the rest of us. It is with this conclusion that I take exception.
In fact much data much more data about the negative correlation between immigrants themselves and crime than the report lets on (the citations below are just a small indication), which consistently indicate that immigrants themselves, except for crimes caused by immigration itself (e.g. violating immigration laws), tend to have lower rates of crime than the native born. The academic literature is also clear on another point: Immigrants are more likely to seek employment mowing our lawns, staffing our restaurants, cleaning our houses, and staff our factories than they are to commit crime. In fact, such populations by themselves tend to have lower arrest rates than native-born US citizens. But this is indeed an over-simplification of the relationship, too.
Indeed, immigrants have such low rates of crime that one major researcher has proposed that a way to calm cities down would be to introduce new immigrants. And while admitting more immigrants might work to bring crime in the short-run, I don’t think that this is the whole story either. The reason for this paradox is that immigrant populations are self-selected for behavior, and age, all conditions which mitigate against the impulsive behavior which most commonly lands people in American lock-ups. In particular, criminal behavior and arrest is strongly related with age and gender. Males from about 15-22 years old have the highest frequency of theft, assault, drug use, etc., as anyone who has ever survived an American high school knows. The average age for arriving immigrants, be they legal or illegal is in the late twenties. So in many respects, it is not all that surprising that crime rates among them are lower than the general population.
What is more, immigrants are a self-selected lot, in the sense that those who leave home tend to be self-starters, energetic risk takers, better educated and more compliant than their less-energetic cousins who stay home. This is why scholars like Rumbaut (2009), Sampson (2008), Matthew T. Lee et al (2001), and my own book (Waters 1999) typically demonstrate that immigrants themselves are more law-abiding than native populations. This is one reason why immigrants are often a good deal for receiving countries like the United States. Another country pays the costs of raising and educating them, they show up in the receiving country, and immediately get to work.
But this belies another problem with immigrant populations, which is that they do sometimes have a “second generation” crime problem. This issue is unfortunately avoided in the Camarota and Vaughan’s report. The fact though is that immigrant communities in which birth rates are high, and which are impoverished and centered inner cities, often develop gangs of their own. This happens when the males born in the US (or who arrived as small children) hit the 15-22 year old age group. When this happens a strain emerges between some immigrant boys who do poorly in schools, and immigrant parents who are unable to control them in the context of the United States’ inner cities. In this context, parents and youth alike are often isolated from America’s mainstream society. This occurs because the parents are isolated in the impoverished immigrant community, while the youth are isolated as a result of marginalization at school, their own behavior, and ultimately the response of the justice system. Notably this is not a behavior brought from home countries, but developed in the context of American cities. Their cousins who remained behind in the rural areas of the third world do not have the same problem. The really odd thing though is that in these same American-born families, the brothers or sisters or the errant boys are often doing particularly well—many become the paradigmatic immigrant valedictorian whose accomplishments are justifiably celebrated by organizations like CIS.
The problem of course is that immigrant success stories and crime stories are often inseparable, and as a result, are not particularly responsive to pat formulas relying on legal restrictions, and blanket deportation policies that CIS advocates. But, irrespective of what CIS writes about data being “conflicted,” there is indeed some clarity in how crime emerges in immigrant communities: It arises from the conditions of American cities. And dealing with the conditions of American cities as they affect impoverished immigrant communities is the best way to deal with the waves of crime that do predictably occur, leading to more victims and arrests. Acknowledging the complexity of such issues is what providing a good welcome to immigrants should involve.
Tony Waters (1999) Crime and Immigrant Youth. Thousand Oaks: Sage
Matthew T. Lee, Ramiro Martinez, and Richard Rosenfeld (2001) Does Immigration Increase Homicide? Negative Evidence from Three Border Cities. Sociological Quarterly
Graham C. Ousey, and Charis E. Kubrin (2009) “Exploring the Connection between Immigration and Violent Crime Rates in U. S. Cities, 1980-2000.” Social Problems, August 2009. 56(3):447-473.
Ruben Rumbaut (2009) “Undocumented Immigration and Rates of Crime and Imprisonment: Popular Myths and Empirical Studies,” at http://www.policefoundation.org/pdf/strikingabalance/Appendix%20D.pdf
Robert J. Sampson (2008) Rethinking Crime and Immigration, Contexts Volume 7.