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Immigration and Crime: Facts Not Fear

By Kristin F. Butcher, associate professor of economics at Wellesley College and Anne Morrison Piehl, associate professor of economics at Rutgers University

This opinion article appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune on March 7, 2008

The rhetoric on all sides of the immigration debate can sometimes prevent us from understanding straightforward facts about this complex issue. When advocates calling for a crackdown on immigration – particularly illegal immigration – began to invoke fears about the public's safety, we decided to look at the numbers. Do immigrants really make us less safe?

It's true that in California, immigrants are more likely than the U.S.-born to be young and male and to have low levels of education – all traits associated with higher levels of crime and incarceration. Given these demographics, our investigation yielded some surprising results.

Based on data from the state prison system and the 2000 Census, we found that immigrant adults are considerably less likely than the U.S.-born to be in a California prison or jail. This holds true regardless of immigrants' education levels, length of time in the United States, or the region of the world they come from.

The hard numbers? Immigrants, who make up 35 percent of California's adult population, constitute only 17 percent of the state prison population. In fact, U.S.-born men have an incarceration rate up to 3.3 times higher than immigrant men.

The gap between the native-born and immigrants is even wider when using the broader measure of institutionalization – confinement in jails, halfway houses and similar institutions. Among men ages 18 to 40 – the demographic group most likely to be criminally active – U.S.-born men are 10 times more likely than immigrants to be institutionalized.

Of course, illegal immigrants have been a particular source of concern when it comes to public safety. Because of a lack of available data, we cannot focus separately on this group. However, we are able to distinguish between naturalized citizens and noncitizens, and our analysis reveals that illegal immigrants are dramatically underrepresented in the state's prisons and jails. Male noncitizens born in Mexico – a group much more likely than the overall foreign-born population to include illegal immigrants – have much lower rates of institutionalization than the native-born. U.S.-born men have rates more than eight times higher.

Concerns have also been expressed over illegal immigrants' lack of education, since low education levels are linked to social problems, including crime. Indeed, U.S.-born men are much more likely to be incarcerated if they have less than a high school diploma. But that's not true of immigrants. They have low institutionalization rates at all education levels.

For those with the lowest level of educational attainment, the numbers are quite striking. Among male noncitizens from Mexico who are 18 to 40 and have less than a high school diploma – the most likely group to have entered the United States illegally – institutionalization rates are extremely low compared with U.S.-born men with the same age range and education levels.

Of course, immigrants may affect public safety in ways other than direct involvement in criminal activity. For example, if immigrants “take away” legal jobs from the U.S.-born, then crime rates could rise among natives looking for alternative – illegal – opportunities. To measure criminal activity more broadly, we investigated crime rates in California cities.

What we found was consistent with our analysis of criminal justice data: Between 2000 and 2005, California cities with a larger share of recent immigrants saw their crime rates fall further than cities with a smaller share. This finding is especially strong for violent crime.

Finally, we wondered about the children of immigrants: Even if immigrants are less likely to engage in criminal activity than the average native, their children might not be. In our review of current evidence on later immigrant generations, we found continued low levels of criminal activity.

Taken together, all the evidence points to extremely low levels of criminal activity among immigrants in California. This suggests that the public would be no safer if additional dollars are spent to limit immigration or raise education requirements for immigrants. Public safety is more likely to be improved by directing law enforcement resources toward the criminally active, whether immigrant or U.S.-born.

Of course, public safety is just one factor to be considered in immigration policy. But appeals to the public's fear about crime have a long history in the immigration debate and they continue today. As regional, state and nationwide debates on immigration go forward, let's keep our focus on facts, not fear.

Related Publications

Immigrants in California

Who’s In Prison? The Changing Demographics of Incarceration

Illegal Immigration