Friday, August 18, 2006

Immigration and crime: debunking another myth

On Wednesday, the House Homeland Security Committee went to Houston to investigate "The criminal consequences of illegal immigration along the Southern Border." During the five hour hearing, they took testimony from the Texas Homeland Security Director, and officials from The Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Webb County Sheriff, Rick Flores narrated a video of a gunfight between members of drug cartels in the Mexican city of Nuevo Laredo, and they heard from the mother of a 17 year old girl murdered by and undocumented immigrant who escaped prosecution by returning to his home country. Texas prison officials testified along with Houston police and Harris County Sheriffs. The hearings made for good political theater, but the real answers to the Representatives questions could be found by Congressional interns with a few hours of research time.

In June, one of the most comprehensive studies of immigration and its effect on crime was puplished by The Migration Policy Institute. It's finding – immigrants commit far fewer crimes than native born Americans.

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Debunking the Myth of Immigrant Criminality: Imprisonment Among First- and Second-Generation Young Men by By Rubén G. Rumbaut, of the University of California - Irvine, looked at the rates of incarceration of newly arrived immigrants and their US born children and compared that to the rates of the US non-immigrant population.

Published in the MPI journal "Migration Information' the study, went back over three decades, and looked at various factors such as educational levels, country of origin and ethnic background, to examined the confluences of two major trends in the US society; the staggering increase in imprisonment of large segments of the population during the period, and a tremendous growth in immigration. In a classic case of correlation not equaling causation the study found no clear relationship between the two.

The study notes that the last three decades have marked a period of vastly increased immigration. According to the latest census 23% of the population (70 million people), are either foreign born or of foreign parentage, including 76 percent of all "Hispanics" and 90 percent of all "Asians"

The era of mass immigration has also coincided with an era of mass imprisonment in the United States … the US incarceration rate has become the highest of any country in the world. In California alone, there are more people imprisoned than in any other country in the world except China.

The number of adults incarcerated in federal or state prisons or local jails in the United States skyrocketed during this period, quadrupling from just over 500,000 in 1980 to 2.2 million in 2005, according to the Department of Justice…the vast majority are young men between 18 and 39.

Common knowledge would have it that these two trends would be related. Daily we here stories of increased gang violence, of drugs being smuggled in over the border, and crimes committed by "illegal aliens." This in spite of the fact of a falling US crime rate. In many ways perception has become reality. From the pundits to politicians, all echo the same refrain; immigrants bring crime.

But that quite simply is not the case:

Foreign-Born vs. Native-Born Men: Who Are More Likely to be Incarcerated?

In as much as conventional theories of crime and incarceration predict higher rates for young adult males from ethnic minority groups with lower educational attainment — characteristics which describe a much greater proportion of the foreign-born population than of the native born — it follows that immigrants would be expected to have higher incarceration rates than natives. And immigrant Mexican men — who comprise fully a third of all immigrant men between 18 and 39, and who have the lowest levels of education — would be expected to have the highest rates.


Surprisingly, at least from the vantage of conventional wisdom, the data show the above hypotheses to be unfounded. In fact, the incarceration rate of the US born (3.51 percent) was four times the rate of the foreign born (0.86 percent). The foreign-born rate was half the 1.71 percent rate for non-Hispanic white natives, and 13 times less than the 11.6 percent incarceration rate for native black men

Tellingly, among the foreign born, the highest incarceration rate by far (4.5 percent) was observed among island-born Puerto Ricans, who are not immigrants as such since they are US citizens by birth and can travel to the mainland as natives. If the island-born Puerto Ricans were excluded from the foreign-born totals, the national incarceration rate for the foreign born would drop to 0.68 percent.

Of particular interest is the finding that the lowest incarceration rates among Latin American immigrants are seen for the least educated groups: Salvadorans and Guatemalans (0.52 percent), and Mexicans (0.70 percent). These are precisely the groups most stigmatized as "illegals" in the public perception and outcry about immigration.

The study also found a substantial "downward mobility" as far as the US born children of immigrants were concerned. Every ethnic group without exception showed increases in incarceration of young men from the foreign-born to native-born generations. Second-generation youth were more prone to engage in risk behaviors (delinquency, violence, and substance abuse) than foreign-born youth. There was also a higher rate of incarceration among those immigrants that arrived as children and had assimilated further into society suggesting that "'Americanization' can lead to greater risk of involvement with the criminal justice system for a significant minority of this population."

Incarceration rates increase significantly for all US-born coethnics without exception. That is most notable for Mexicans, whose incarceration rate increases more than eightfold to 5.9 percent among the US born; for Vietnamese (from 0.46 to 5.6 percent among the US born); and for the Laotians and Cambodians (from 0.92 percent to 7.26 percent, the highest of any group except for native blacks).

This increase in incarceration rates in the second generation can be attributed to the same societal factors that lead to the high rates among other native born at-risk populations such as Blacks, like poverty, lack of educational opportunities and lack of job skills, etc.

It is this second, and in some cases third generation of native-born children of immigrants who have become the face of the "increased crime" caused by immigration in the American consciousness. Unwilling to differentiate between the newly arrived from those who were born here, the majority of Americans (73%) believe that immigrants cause higher crime rates.

Today's children of immigrants — both the first (foreign-born) and second (US-born with at least one foreign-born parent) generations — confront a complex set of circumstances that shape their incorporation. Many are progressing exceptionally well, as evidenced by a variety of educational and socioeconomic indicators. For a smaller but not insignificant segment of this population, there is a strong pull from the streets, where violence and gangs make up a large part of the realities of central cities. By the time these children of immigrants reach adulthood, the impediments and opportunities faced as adolescents solidify.

This problem in the second generation is one we need to address as a society on a whole. Just as we need to address why 22.25% of Black men without high school educations were imprisoned at the time of the 2000 census, 80 percent of them for crimes related to drugs or drug addiction. These are questions not of immigration or immigration status, but rather questions about what kind of society we really want to have. Is it one in which whole segments of the population are abandoned to poverty and drugs, or one in which opportunities are available to escape the cycle of crime and incarceration.

Conclusions and Implications

Because many immigrants, especially labor migrants from Mexico and Central America and refugees from Southeast Asia, are young men who have arrived with very low levels of education, conventional wisdom — both in the form of nativist stereotype as well as standard criminological theory — tends to associate them with high rates of crime and incarceration. The unauthorized entry and visa overstays of many, framed as an assault against the "rule of law" by pundits and politicians (most notoriously by a House of Representatives bill, passed in December 2005, which would make felons of all "illegal" immigrants and criminalize those who assist them), reinforces the stereotypical association of immigration and criminality in much public discourse. This association flourishes in a post-9/11 climate of fear and ignorance where "terrorism" and "losing control of our borders" are often mentioned in the same breath, if without any evidence to back them up.

But correlation is not causation. In fact, immigrants have the lowest rates of imprisonment for criminal convictions in American society. Both the national and local-level findings presented here turn conventional wisdom on its head and present a challenge to criminological theory as well as to sociological perspectives on "straight-line assimilation."


Anonymous said...

Duke I read something very interesting today. According to the wingnut press: - The chief law enforcement officers of several Texas counties along the southern U.S. border warn that Arabic-speaking individuals are learning Spanish and integrating into Mexican culture before paying smugglers to sneak them into the United States. The Texas Sheriffs' Border Coalition believes those individuals are likely terrorists and that drug cartels and some members of the Mexican military are helping them get across the border.

Well, I decided to check it out and quickly found the actually testimony of the sherrifs here:

Look at page 16 of the report, where it states that the persons speaking Spanish with a non Mex accent were most likely from Central America.. and gang members.

Gangsters and drug smugglers, sure, but the insinuation that they were terrorists from Iran or elsewhere is ludicrous.

Mariachi Mama

Duke1676 said...

thanks Mama,

I'll check it out ... these guys would give their right arms to tie the whole anti-immigrant movement to the "war on terra" with some sort of solid link...or they can just make one up

that seems to be their standard M.O.