Immigration crime myths

Immigration crime myths
Image: Center for Immigration Study

The crime rate is probably a bit higher among immigrants overall than among the native-born population, but not radically different, and reliable data is lacking. As the Center for Immigration Studies notes, “The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimates that immigrants (legal and illegal) comprise 20 percent of inmates in prisons and jails. The foreign-born are 15.4 percent of the nation’s adult population. However, DHS has not provided a detailed explanation of how the estimates were generated.” The crime rate is probably lower among legal immigrants who become citizens than among native-born citizens — especially among young men, compared to their native-born compatriots.

But the crime rate is likely higher among illegal aliens than among citizens, and among non-citizens than among citizens. As CIS notes in a November 2009 publication titled “Immigration and Crime: Assessing a Conflicted Issue,” non-citizens are overrepresented in America’s jail population: “DHS states that it has identified 221,000 non-citizens in the nation’s jails. This equals 11 to 15 percent of the jail population. Non-citizens comprise only 8.6 percent of the nation’s total adult population.” “The Federal Bureau of Prisons reports that 26.4 percent of inmates in federal prisons are non-U.S. citizens. Non-citizens are 8.6 percent of the nation’s adult population. However, federal prisons are not representative of prisons generally or local jails.” But illegal aliens comprise substantial fraction of all felons in many localities, such as in Maricopa County, Arizona, where “22 percent of felons are illegal aliens.”

By contrast, CIS observes, “advocates for immigrants” often “cite academic research claiming that immigrants actually are less prone to crime than natives,” specifically, the Public Policy Institute of California’s “Crime, Corrections, and California,” and the Immigration Policy Center’s “The Myth of Immigrant Criminality and the Paradox of Assimilation.” As CIS notes, “Both studies conclude that immigrants are much less likely to commit crimes than are natives. However, both studies share a fundamental problem: The data they use are not reliable, making meaningful analysis impossible.” The same is true of the recent study “The Integration of Immigrants into American Society” co-sponsored by the National Science Foundation, which was “one-sided” and had a tendency to “ignore any evidence to the contrary, such as this analysis and this one.” Studies generally tend to understate immigrant crime rates. As CIS notes,”with the exception of federal prisons, which account for only a small fraction of all those incarcerated, state and local correctional institutions generally have not tried to carefully determine whether their prisoners are native or foreign-born. Typically they use self-reporting as the primary means by which they determine place of birth or citizenship. . .Because being a non-citizen can lead to deportation, there is a strong incentive for individuals to lie about where they were born or if they are in the country illegally. This means that any survey such as the Census, or surveys done by jails and prisons, will likely understate the share of inmates who are non-citizens or illegal aliens.” The NSF-sponsored study makes the mistake of citing such census data, “unaware that the data are unreliable” in understating immigrant crime rates.

Even if immigrants themselves do not have a higher crime rate, immigration could still lead to an increase in crime if immigrants’ children have higher crime rates than they do. The fact that an illiterate Central American illegal immigrant may be willing to work long hours for low pay in an unpleasant or dirty job (such as being a roofer), hardly means his children will be satisfied with such back-breaking, honest, low-paid work.  They may be dissatisfied with such a modest lot in life, and turn to a life of crime. And, in fact, the Hispanic crime rate is higher than the crime rate among America’s non-Hispanic white majority for crimes such as murder. As Danyelle Solomon of the pro-immigration, left-wing think tank Center for American Progress admits, “If current trends continue, one in six Latino males born in 2001 will go to prison at some point during his lifetime, compared to just one in 17 white males.”

These nuances are lost on academics like George Mason University’s Ilya Somin, who argues that Republican primary voters are ignorant because they plausibly think immigration will increase crime rates; Somin claims “social science research consistently shows that immigrants (including Mexican immigrants) actually have much lower crime-rates than native-born citizens.” Putting aside the fact that there is no official, much less reliable, data specifically about the Mexican-immigrant crime rate (anymore than there is official data about the crime rate among red-headed Eskimos), immigration could increase overall U.S. crime rates by increasing the Hispanic population, even if it immigrants themselves are law-abiding. Immigrants (including Mexican immigrants) are generally hard-working and they have high employment rates (especially legal immigrants). But this is no guarantee that all their offspring will be similarly hardworking and willing to work long hours for low pay. Somin also idiosyncratically believes that Congress lacks the power to restrict immigration, but that belief is at odds with generations of Supreme Court rulings.

Jerome Woehrle

Jerome Woehrle

Jerome Woehrle is an attorney and author, who writes about politics.


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