My Thoughts On Week #3: Immigration, Part II

I’ve heard many things said about immigrants and crime. Some say that they cause crime, others say that they don’t. Most of the crime attributed to immigrants, Mexicans and other Central/South Americans in particular, is drug related crimes, sexual assault and homicides. To understand crime (known as “criminology” in academia), as Dianne Small-Jordan points out, one must comprehend “a substantial body of verified principles of knowledge. These include biology, neurology, sociology, psychology, psychiatry, political science and economics regarding the process of the law, crime and treatment.”[1]

Rather than go on to analyzing all of these categories, I’ going to focus on just a few, primarily political, social, and economic factors when it comes to crime conducted by immigrants, legal or illegal.

Part I: A General Overview on Immigration and Crime

The first thing I wanted to note, in general, is that violent crime as a whole in the United States is dropping, with the violent crime rate (per 100,000 people) going from a 747.1 to a 386.9 between 1993 and 2012, a decrease of 48.21% while the population increased 21.77% (from 257,782,608 to 313,914,040) within the same time period.[2] All of this happened while the share of immigrants in the United states increased from 7.9% in 1990 to 13.0% in 2012.[3] This is also reflected by data from the Immigration Policy Center as shown in this following graph:

There are two different types of studies that investigate immigrant crime, as Alex Nowrasteh of the CATO Institute points out; Censuses of the Institutionalized Population (using Census data) and Macro Level Analysis of Immigrant Criminality (using local crime rates and panel data). From these two methods of data collection, Nowrasteh concludes that “both the Census-data driven studies and macro-level studies find that immigrants are less crime-prone than natives with some small potential exceptions.”[4]

When it comes to prisoners, 90.34% of the prison population in the United States is in state prisons, with the other 9.66% in federal prison, about one-third of prisoners being in Texas, California, Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania.[5]

It is important to note that the top three states are indeed three of the top states where most illegal immigrants reside (as will be discussed later). However, they have had high crime rates (compared to other states) nonetheless, so one should not automatically attribute the crime to illegal immigrant presence. Nonetheless, the Center for Immigration Studies argues that immigrants, contrary to the majority consensus explained above, are more likely to cause crime than natives. Even so, they admit that “the overall picture of immigrants and crime remains confused due to a lack of good data and contrary information.”[6]

But subsequent research by sociologist Tim Wadsworth of the University of Colorado reveals that “after analyzing 459 cities with populations of at least 50,000 inhabitants, cities that experienced greater growth in immigrant or new-immigrant populations between 1990 and 2000 tended to demonstrate sharper decreases in homicide and robbery.”[7] Wadsworth also notes that most of the sentiment regarding supposed links between immigration and crime are often expressed on Internet blogs and elsewhere. and says that looking at crime statistics at a single point in time can’t explain the cause of crime rates, rather the study has to be stretched through time. He further admits that “Although there has been scant empirical research to support such claims, they have persisted with little debate.”[8]

But what about the difference between crime committed by legal and illegal immigrants? David Green explains that “The highest level of significance achieved is at the 90% confidence level, showing a weak positive association between undocumented immigrants and violent crime overall, and a weak negative relationship between foreign population size and rape.”[9]

There is, however, some evidence of a small, yet significant association between undocumented immigrants and drug crime, murder, and rape, but they lose significance, even when controlling for various demographic and economic factors, and that poverty appears to have the strongest relationship to violent crime rates.[10]

Unfortunately, however, the research of immigration and crime along generations make things a little surprising. Much of the low-crime statistics have to do with first-generation immigrants. Rich Morin of the Pew Research Center explains what he called “the dark side of assimilation” when he says that: “second-generation immigrants have become as susceptible to temptation and harmful influences as are other Americans according to Bersani. […] Some researchers say the generations face two different sets of experiences, with the second generation, those with at least one parent who was born abroad, caught in the middle. They argue the second generation is caught between conflicting family and social values and expectations, and one result of this old world/new world conflict is a greater propensity to commit crime.”[11]

This is also backed up by the evidence from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Panel on the Integration of Immigrants into American Society report that released last year. In it, the researchers found that immigration integration into American society impacted practically everything; religious, politics, language, family, and yes, even crime. In conclusion 7-4, the panel, led by Harvard sociologist Mary C. Waters found that “Far from immigration increasing crime rates, studies demonstrate that immigrants and immigration are associated inversely with crime. Immigrants are less likely than the native-born to commit crimes, and neighborhoods with greater concentrations of immigrants have much lower rates of crime and violence than comparable nonimmigrant neighborhoods. However, crime rates rise among the second and later generations, perhaps a negative consequence of adaptation to American society.”[12]

Ramiro Martinez, Jr. and Matthew T. Lee explain this trend best in their work titled On Immigration and Crime. “Scholars rarely produce any systematic evidence of this recently reemerging social problem. As Hagan and Palloni note, because immigration adds to the country’s total population, and especially the population of young, unattached males, it will also likely increase the absolute volume of crime. […] Similar findings showing no systematic relationship between immigration and crime rates have been reported for the early 20th-century wave of immigration as well.”[13] They conclude that “local context appears to be the central influence shaping the criminal involvement of both immigrants and natives, although in many cases, immigrants seem more able to withstand crime-facilitating conditions than native groups. […] Contemporary immigration might not create disorganized communities but instead stabilize neighborhoods through the creation of new social and economic institutions.”[14]

David Green notes a trend in early writings on associations between immigration and crime. In 1924, Sutherland “proposed that immigrants to the United States actually have significantly lower crime rates compared to the native population” while Shaw and McKay noted in 1942 that socially disorganized urban neighborhoods where immigrants usually settle (poverty, residential mobility, and structural disadvantage, etc.) is largely to blame for crime rather than immigration itself.[15] McCay conducted further research in 1965, concluding that “place of residence plays a major role in delinquency, while immigrant status reduced propensity toward crime if anything.”[16]

James P. Smith and Barry Edmonston in their book The Immigration Debate, reach an identical conclusion based on works even earlier than Sutherland’s own (such as Abbott from 1915), noting that “Aside from highly questionable writings associated with the eugenics movement, the research of this earlier era provided little evidence of a causal association between immigration and crime. [For example,] homicide rates from this period in New York City [1820-1993], presented in Figure 9-1, reveal no systematic relationship, and McCord’s assessment of the research literature from this period indicates that immigrants were not, as was often alleged, particularly prone to drunkenness or crime.”[17]

Since the 1990s, various scholars have tackled the immigration-crime question with similar results. The list that David Green shows in his article on “The Trump Hypothesis” is reproduced below.

General Studies
McDonald (1997)
Butcher and Piehl (1998)
Bradshaw et al. (1998)
Hagan and Palloni (1998)
Hagan, Levi, and Dinovitzer (2008)

Immigration and Crime on Country Level
Tonry (1997)
Yeager (1997)

Immigration and Crime on National Level
Mears (2001)
Chen and Zhong (2013)

Immigration and Crime on City Level
Bradshaw et al. (1998)
Martinez and Lee (2000)
Ousey and Kubrin (2009)

Immigration and Crime on Neighborhood Level
Alaniz,Cartmill, and Parker (1998)
Sampson, Morenoff, and Raudenbush (2005)

Possible Explanations of Crime and Immigration
Borjas (1993)
Cobb-Clark (1993)
Model (1995)
Kao and Tienda (1995)
Sampson, Morenoff, and Raudenbush (2005)
Martinez (2006)
Ousey and Kubrin (2009)

Looking at a one-year snapshot of criminal statistics proves interesting. Data obtained by the House Judiciary Committee shows that in FY 2014, there have been 79,059 crimes committed by 30,558 criminal aliens, or an average of 2.58 crimes per criminal aliens.[18] In contrast, FY 2015 has shown a total of 64,197 crimes committed by 19,723 criminal aliens, or an average of 3.25 crimes per criminal aliens.[19]

Indeed, the average criminal alien has committed nearly 1 more crime on average between the two years, although the total number of crimes committed and the number of criminal aliens charged decreased within that same time frame (decreased by 18.79% and 35.45% respectively). What else is interesting is the type of crime committed. The numbers from the FY2015 report show that slightly over one-third (35.6% to be exact) are traffic offenses, most of them being general traffic offenses and driving under the influence with liquor. Sex offenses/sexual assault counts for 1,286 crimes (2%) while homicides count for 196 crimes (0.3%).[20]

Part II: Border State Analysis
Data on illegal immigrants and crime on a state level is at best incomplete. States rarely, if ever, ask questions about legal status, although we can somewhat make a guess, as nearly one-fourth of total foreign born immigrants.[21] The four border states; Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas, have experienced the general trend of what the United States has been experiencing since the 90s (with the exception of Arizona), despite the Mexican immigrant population jumping from 760,000 in 1970 to 11.7 million in 2014[22] and the overall illegal immigration rose from around 540,000 in 1969 to 11.4 million in 2012.[23]

As I have stated before, although immigration has increased (documented and undocumented), homicides (and other violent crimes) have decreased.[24] Immigrants that settled for a lawful permanent residence rose from 370,000 in 1970 to a little over 1 million in 2012 (the only exception to this is the spike between 1988 and 1991, with it peaking at 1.8 million).[25]

The numbers below indicate raw crime numbers for the given year while the number in parentheses is the crime rate per 100,000 population. All state crime data is taken from

1970: 6,564 (370.3)
1980: 17,673 (650.9)
1990: 23,911 (652.4)
2000: 27,281 (531.7)
2010: 26,528 (413.6)
2012: 28,108 (428.9)

1970: 94,741 (474.8)
1980: 210,290 (893.6)
1990: 311,051 (1,045.2)
2000: 210,531 (621.6)
2010: 164,133 (439.6)
2012: 160,944 (423.1)

New Mexico
1970: 3,093 (304.4)
1980: 7,967 (615.0)
1990: 11,821 (780.2)
2000: 13,786 (757.9)
2010: 12,147 (588.0)
2012: 11,660 (559.1)

1970: 40,897 (365.3)
1980: 77,978 (550.3)
1990: 129,343 (761.4)
2000: 113,653 (545.1)
2010: 113,231 (448.4)
2012: 106,476 (408.6)

But the more important number by far would have to be the states with the most illegal immigrants. The Migration Policy Institute notes that nearly 6.5 million, more than half of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, reside in the five following states: California, Texas, New York, Florida, and Illinois (I’ll be covering the last three in this instance).[26] As with the border states (except Arizona), Florida and Illinois show that same downward trend in violent crime, with New York being the only outsider. (Side note: Per the data, New York and Arizona only reversed their downward trends between 2010 and 2012 (the latest year for data available on UCR)).

New York
1970: 124,613 (685.0)
1980: 180,235 (1,029.5)
1990: 212,458 (1,180.9)
2000: 105,111 (553.9)
2010: 76,492 (394.4)
2012: 79,610 (406.8)

1970: 33,824 (498.2)
1980: 94,095 (983.5)
1990: 160,990 (1,244.3)
2000: 129,777 (812.0)
2010: 101,969 (541.3)
2012: 94,087 (487.1)

1970: 52,006 (467.9)
1980: 91,753 (808.0)
1990: 110,575 (967.4)
2000: 81,196 (653.8)
2010: 57,132 (444.9)
2012: 53,403 (414.8)
Part III: Incarceration and Recidivism
Incarceration rates are another factor that has to be looked at when dealing with immigration and crime. According to the research of UC Irvine professor Rubén Rumbaut, “incarceration rates among both legal and illegal immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala were all less than half the rate of U.S.-born whites. Immigrants without a high-school diploma had an incarceration rate that was one-fourth that of native-born high-school graduates, and one-seventh that of native-born dropouts.”[27] Further research done by Rubén G. Rumbaut and Walter A. Ewing in 2007 reveals that “the incarceration rate of native-born men in this age group [age 18 to 39] (3.5%) was 5 times higher than the incarceration rate of foreign-born men (0.7%).”[28] What’s more interesting is that the longer the length of residence in the United States, the more prone that immigrants are to being incarcerated.[29]

Drawing from the 2010 census, The American Immigration Council reported that “roughly 1.6% of immigrant males age 18-39 are incarcerated, compared to 3.3% of the native-born. This disparity in incarceration rates has existed for decades, as evidenced by data from the 1980, 1990, and 2000 decennial censuses. In each of those years, the incarceration rates of the native-born were anywhere from two to five times higher than that of immigrants.”[30] They also noted that the government’s definition of the term “criminal alien” has been redefined to the point where a simple brush with the criminal justice system can subject them to detention for an unknown amount of time and then are kicked out of the country.[31]

Crime rates along the border are no different. In 2011, USA Today analyzed more than 1,600 city and county police agencies across the border between 1998 and 2008, finding that violent crime is often lower near the border than the rest of a police agency’s parent state.[32]

As to why immigration incarceration rates are so low, Kristin F. Butcher Anne Morrison Piehl present several explanations including an increase in deportations, the adoption of policies that increased criminal penalties, and changes in the legal, economic, and social environment that might have affected immigration.[33] The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago conducted a study back in 2005 that also gave a possible explanation for the low rates of immigrant incarceration, gradual exposure to the U.S. criminal justice system before one is likely to be institutionalized. They also note shared characteristics with native-born Americans who have high institutionalization rates, including education, race, and age.[34]

The Public Policy Institute of California further explains that “those in the country illegally have an additional incentive to avoid contact with law enforcement, even for minor offenses, since such contact is likely to increase the chances that their illegal status will be revealed.”[35]

A 2008 study by Hickman and Suttorp shows that “The results suggest that deportable aliens are no greater threat to public safety than are legal immigrants released from incarceration at the same place and time. […] Whereas deportable aliens were more likely to have a prior conviction, this finding is less meaningful because a prior conviction could have been the cause of their deportable status under federal immigration law.”[36] They concluded that additional study was needed, especially to see if results differed “depending on type of deportable alien, for example, those who entered illegally and never obtained legal status versus those who entered legally but whose legal status has lapsed or been revoked.”[37]

One such study came in 2012 when the Congressional Research Service showed that the recidivism rate among criminal and illegal immigrants was 17%, and about a 16% recidivism rate among illegal immigrants. Table 4 of the report shows that Legal Permanent Residents were more than half of the people re-arrested ager identification through the Secure Communities program.[38] In contrast, the Bureau of Justice Statistics notes that recidivism rates, in general, are 56.7% within the first year of release, 67.8% within three years, and 76.6% within five years.[39]

Even historical evidence from nearly a century ago shows similar data! In 1917, the American Bar Association released their Annual Report which noted that “Of more interest is the comparison of the frequency of recidivism between foreign-born and native born. Here we find that whereas the percentage of recidivism among the native-born of these 608 cases was 75.9%, in the foreign-born, it was only 49.8%, or 106 out of 213 cases.”[40] Nearly 90 years later, the Immigration and Naturalization Service reported that it released 35,318 criminal aliens between October 1994 and May 1999, where there were 11,605 who went on to commit new crimes, a recidivism rate of 37%, lost half of the 66% recidivism rate for the U.S. criminal population for the comparable period.[41]

From what I can tell, a lot of crime from immigrants and illegal immigrants stem from the ongoing War on Drugs, illicit drug trafficking, etc. I’ll go further into my thoughts on the drug war another time, but to give a brief overview, most of, if not all, major Mexican drug cartels originated in the 1980s and 1990s (with being the earliest in 1980 (the Guadalajara Cartel)), although smaller cartels started popping up in the 1920s and 1930s due to drug laws in the United States and Mexico passed around that time.[42]

The War on Drugs has been the prime factor for this drug trafficking, first used as a program in the late 1960s by Rickard Nixon. Although it did have noble intentions, it did include an underlying political objective. In a Harper’s Magazine interview, John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s White House Domestic Affairs Advisor, recalled that “We [the Nixon administration] knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”[43] Should the War on Drugs end (perhaps by establishing a Portugal type drug reform program, as one way of handling it), I have no doubt that many drug related crimes would cease to exist, especially around the border.

Finally, some might argue that illegal immigrants have already committed a crime, by entering in illegally. Technically, this is true, but there a problem with this claim: not all illegal immigrants entered through the country illegally. Pew Research Center notes that “Nearly half of all the unauthorized migrants now living in the United States entered the country legally […] where they were subject to inspection by immigration officials. [They] entered the country with visas that allowed them to visit or reside in the U.S. for a limited amount of time. Known as “overstayers,” these migrants became part of the unauthorized population when they remained in the country after their visas had expired.”[44]

For those that do commit unlawful entry, the punishment under current U.S. law is relatively small. United States Code 8 U.S.C. § 1325, says that “any alien who (1) enters or attempts to enter the United States at any time or place other than as designated by immigration officers, or (2) eludes examination or inspection by immigration officers, or (3) attempts to enter or obtains entry to the United States by a willfully false or misleading representation or the willful concealment of a material fact, shall, for the first commission of any such offense, be fined under title 18 or imprisoned not more than 6 months, or both, and, for a subsequent commission of any such offense, be fined under title 18, or imprisoned not more than 2 years, or both.”[45] The code also states that “Any alien who is apprehended while entering (or attempting to enter) the United States at a time or place other than as designated by immigration officers shall be subject to a civil penalty of (1) at least $50 and not more than $250 for each such entry (or attempted entry)”[46]

However unlawful presence can become a criminal offense, but only “when an alien is found in the United States after having been formally removed or after departing the U.S. while a removal order was outstanding.”[47] Even then, overstaying a visa is not a criminal offense, rather it is a civil offense. The Congressional Research Service explains that “The removal of aliens, however severe its consequences, has been “consistently classified as a civil rather than a criminal procedure” by the courts.”[48]

FindLaw concludes that “Both improper entry and unlawful presence should be avoided by any immigrant to the United States, but an illegal alien cannot be criminally charged or incarcerated simply for being undocumented.”[49] Of course, I have my own quips about the enforcement of immigration law (however complicated it is), as Ted Cruz mentioned in a July 2015 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on immigration policy[50], but that will be another topic for another time.

[8]: Ibid.
[10]: Ibid.
[14]: Ibid.
[16]: Ibid.
[20]: Ibid.
[31]: Ibid.
[37]: Ibid.
[46]: Ibid.
[48]: Ibid.


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