Immigration and Crime: Myth v. Reality

Immigrants in general, and undocumented immigrants in particular, are less likely to commit serious crime than native-born citizens, according to a report (pdf) released yesterday by the Public Policy Institute of California.

"Crime, Corrections, and California: What Does Immigration Have to Do with It?" ... aims to dispel the perception that cities with large foreign-born populations are criminal hot beds, with several California cities showing a dip in police activity amid recent immigration waves.

The findings won't play well with those who prefer stereotypes to reality, but they make sense. As explained by Kristen Butcher, one of the report's authors:

"The type of people who are immigrating are less likely to commit crimes because they're here for jobs," said Butcher, a professor at Wellesley College and a fellow for the nonpartisan policy research group.

Salvador Bustamante explains why reality-based thinking about immigration is important: [more...]

"A lot of people have painted immigrants as the criminal element in our society, and that isn't the case," said Bustamante, Northern California director of Strengthening Our Lives, a statewide nonprofit group that works to empower immigrants.

He said immigrants come to the United States to work, often trying to stay under the radar of authorities and away from criminal activity to avoid deportation.

"The more we can do to dispel the myths that have been created about immigrants will help with immigrant rights and immigration reform," he said.

As the report concludes, good policy-making requires good information, not pandering to sterotypes:

Taken together, our findings suggest that spending additional dollars to reduce immigration or to increase enforcement against the foreign-born will not have a high return in terms of public safety. The foreign-born in California already have extremely low rates of criminal activity.
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    We Should Be Grateful (5.00 / 1) (#3)
    by bob h on Tue Feb 26, 2008 at 01:27:57 PM EST
    to have McCain as an opponent on a couple of scores.  Immigration is one of them; we will not have to listen to Tancredo-ish, scapegoating bilge about immigrants.

    Further, God and Jesus and "Faith" will be getting a well-deserved rest this election.

    Got Tums? (none / 0) (#15)
    by LonewackoDotCom on Tue Feb 26, 2008 at 05:13:03 PM EST
    Whoever the nominees are, expect to see unaffiliated regular citizens go to campaign appearances and bring up the topic. Here's an example.

    If I can't find anyone else to ask really good questions, I'll do it myself. If I'm able to get in to a mini-debate about this with one of the candidates and get it on video, I don't think they're going to end up looking very good at all.


    Great piece (5.00 / 1) (#4)
    by Seneca on Tue Feb 26, 2008 at 01:43:16 PM EST
    From someone who works at a large immigration law firm and confronts the insanity of the current system on a daily basis, thanks for this offering.

    One of the major roadblocks in the fight for immigration reform is widespread presence of these myths. Until we educate people about the realities of immigration, the conservative hysteria will about dark-skinned "others" will persist and be able to tie up sound legislation.

    Thanks (5.00 / 1) (#6)
    by reynwrap582 on Tue Feb 26, 2008 at 01:57:10 PM EST
    for sharing this report.  I doubt the MSM will really pick it up so I probably won't hear about it anywhere else.  I look forward to Lou Dobbs completely ignoring it!

    Good--an article to end myths & (none / 0) (#1)
    by MKS on Tue Feb 26, 2008 at 01:07:29 PM EST
    scapegoatting of immigrants and Latinos....

    I did criminal defense (none / 0) (#2)
    by myiq2xu on Tue Feb 26, 2008 at 01:11:28 PM EST
    and my experience was that most immigrant crime was either petty (drunk in public, DUI, shoplifting) or was within the immigrant community (both victim and perpetrator were immigrants.)

    This applied to both legal and illegal immigrants.

    There was another crime issue though.  Illegal immigrants are often targets of crimes like robbery because their status makes them reluctant to report it to the police.

    Apologies for typos above (none / 0) (#5)
    by Seneca on Tue Feb 26, 2008 at 01:44:15 PM EST

    Thank you. (none / 0) (#7)
    by liminal on Tue Feb 26, 2008 at 02:13:49 PM EST
    This is a great report; it should get wider play than it will.  It should get wider play with historic context than it will.  I don't think these charges are new.  So many of the same charges (criminality, depressing wages/taking jobs, changing/challenging culture, even insularity) have been levied against immigrants historically, as well.  There's nothing new here.  It's always been wrong.  

    I often wonder if ordinary Americans would be more broad-minded about immigration policy if they had a better, clearer sense of the obstacles their immigrant ancestors faced to make it to - and in - the USA and of the ways in which nativists fear-mongered and demonized and ostracized those self-same ancestors, often at peril of their lives.

    Reports (none / 0) (#8)
    by tek on Tue Feb 26, 2008 at 02:56:33 PM EST
    of this type are always interesting to me.  We are moving to GA in the fall.  It's a small community and I was researching housing and other demographics.  An article on gangs in this town popped up.  I read the whole thing.  GA has a disproportionate number of illegal hispanics.  In this small town, the MS13, Mexican Mafia, and five other hispanic gangs have taken root and pose a serious problem.  The article named all the areas that are gang territory and said not to go there.  The statistics listed over 4000 robberies a year and a similar number of larcenies and burglaries.  These people commit serious crimes like murder and the police can't prosecute them because they run to Mexico.  

    What I want to know is, who's right on this issue?  Are all these illegal people harmless workers, or is there truly a sinister side to this issue?

    Are You Kidding? (none / 0) (#9)
    by squeaky on Tue Feb 26, 2008 at 03:15:36 PM EST
    Compare gangs to gangs. What do gangs do?

    The alleged gangs that you speak of are a trivial percentage of the immigrant population. Sounds like you have been watching too much Faux teevee.


    Question your Source (none / 0) (#10)
    by Seneca on Tue Feb 26, 2008 at 03:21:15 PM EST
    According to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, in 2006 there were 157 robberies for every 100,000 people. This info, which I believe is accurate, took me 10 seconds to run down. I find it rather improbable that there were 4000 robberies in this small town you're moving to.

    The vast majority of illegal immigrants are law-abiding people seeking to improve their lives and support their families.


    Well, to be fair, (none / 0) (#11)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Tue Feb 26, 2008 at 03:28:25 PM EST
    I agree that they are generally law abiding except for the laws that concern such things as  SS# fraud and/or theft, filing tax returns, etc., etc.

    All petty crimes, of course, in comparison to the incarcerable and institutionable crimes studied in the report, but certainly criminal activity nonetheless.


    How interesting (none / 0) (#12)
    by katmandu on Tue Feb 26, 2008 at 03:47:01 PM EST
    Arizona just did a study that shows
    illegal immigrants account for 10% of the
    crimes, and constitute 10% of our population.

    Of course, a survey of Arizona prisons show
    close to 30% illegal alien population.
    Did you know that the border below the city
    of Tucson is closed to American citizens?  It
    is a public safety issue with drug smugglers,
    human smugglers and various bandits.  
    Also, the Game and Fish department strongly
    urges hunters hikers, and other outdoor sports
    north of the closed area of our border to carry a handgun at all times.
    I was working with Game and Fish in Tucson last
    week---boy have they some horror stories!

    Why? (none / 0) (#13)
    by Deconstructionist on Tue Feb 26, 2008 at 03:55:07 PM EST

    Cite to a useful paper and then falsely misrepresent what it says? From the paper:

    "Second, our data do not allow
    us to examine criminal activity by
    legal or illegal visa status." (emphasis added)

     What you claim it says:

    "Immigrants in general, and undocumented immigrants in particular, are less likely to commit serious crime than native-born citizens, according to a report (pdf) released yesterday by the Public Policy Institute of California." (emphasis added)

      Your misstatement of the data used in the study is hard to explain away as an oversight when the tables clearly accompanying the text clearly explain they are comparing native born to foreign born.

      What the study does say is indeed helpful to counter prejudice and xenophobia. Your misrepresentation just undermines your credibility.

    Decon, (none / 0) (#14)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Tue Feb 26, 2008 at 04:18:56 PM EST
    I was gong to make the exact same point, but later in the report it does say:
    Indeed, institutionalization rates for noncitizens born in Mexico--a group much more likely than the foreignborn overall to include illegal immigrants--are (very slightly) lower for noncitizens than for all men ages 18-40 born in Mexico.

    Not that the method they used (none / 0) (#16)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Tue Feb 26, 2008 at 05:54:13 PM EST
    to arrive at this particular conclusion wasn't a bit convoluted and beyond the professed scope of their study.

    Makes you wonder how non-partisan the study actually was...


    Yes, (none / 0) (#19)
    by Deconstructionist on Wed Feb 27, 2008 at 08:50:07 AM EST
      but that does not compel the conclusion (and the authors do not claim it does) that illegal immigrants do not have a higher crime rate than both legal immigrants and the native born.

    Fair enough. (none / 0) (#20)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Wed Feb 27, 2008 at 02:30:49 PM EST
    misses the point (none / 0) (#17)
    by diogenes on Tue Feb 26, 2008 at 05:59:38 PM EST
    So what's wrong with deporting ANY illegal immigrant who does get convicted of committing a crime, even if they do so in at a lesser rate than citizens?  Why should we provide sanctuary for people who enter illegally and then proceed to break one of our laws?

    There are numerous problems (none / 0) (#18)
    by Deconstructionist on Wed Feb 27, 2008 at 08:48:26 AM EST
      with the survey (I think a better word for the report than study since it does not seem to  involve any original research) but the authors  are forthright about the limitations of the data and avoid making conclusory statements about things where the data they actually have will not allow and make it clear they are offering speculative hypotheses when that is what they are doing.

      Among the problems:

      No uniformity in reporting citizenship/residency/ visa status, etc. of offenders across jurisdictions.

      Lack of a method for determining whether incarceration rates reflect actual offense rates. ( a  "subset" of this problem is not knowing how many "deportables" are turned over to ICE (formerly INS) by state authorities and bypass the state criminal justice system because the state does not want to expend scarece resurces prosecuting  and/or incarcerating "deportables for relatively lesser offenses).

      One thing I noticed and found interesting is that one of the authors' speculative hypotheses was that foreign born people might have lower offense rates because: (a) immigration laws and policies of the USA might tend to screen out likely offenders and (b) foreign born people might be less likely to have substance abuse problems, which the authors at least implicitly seem to suggest is a factor increasing criminal conduct.  I'm not sure those hypotheses are in concert with the TL party line.