The Myth of Immigrant Criminality
Published on: May 23, 2007

Rubén G. Rumbaut is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine. He is coauthor of Immigrant America: A Portrait, the 3rd edition of which was published in 2006.

Walter A. Ewing is a research associate at the Immigration Policy Center and has been researching and writing on immigration policy since 1998. He received his Ph.D. in Anthropology from the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate School in 1997.

Public Perceptions of Immigrants and Crime

*This essay originally appeared as a special report for the Immigration Policy Center, a division of the American Immigration Law Foundation. It is printed here with the permission of the IPC and the AILF. 

Myths and stereotypes about immigrants and crime often provide the underpinnings for public policies and practices.1  These stereotypes are propagated through movies and television series like The Untouchables, The Godfather, Scarface, Miami Vice, and The Sopranos—all of which project an enduring image of immigrant communities permeated by criminal elements. Moreover, the media long have been replete with stories of violent crimes committed by the Italian mafia, Cuban marielitos, Colombian cocaine cartels, Japanese yakuza, Chinese triads, and Central American gangs such as the Salvadoran Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13). Similar views greeted Irish, Jewish, Polish, and other immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The extent to which stereotypes such as these have permeated U.S. society is apparent in the results of the National Opinion Research Center’s 2000 General Social Survey, which interviewed a nationally representative sample of adults to measure attitudes toward and perceptions of immigration in a “multi-ethnic United States.” Asked whether “more immigrants cause higher crime rates,” 25 percent said “very likely” and another 48 percent “somewhat likely.” In other words, about three-fourths (73 percent) of Americans believed that immigration is causally related to more crime. That was a much higher proportion than the 60 percent who believed that “more immigrants were [somewhat or very] likely to cause Americans to lose jobs,” or the 56 percent who thought that “more immigrants were [somewhat or very] likely to make it harder to keep the country united.”2

Periods of increased immigration have historically been accompanied by nativist alarms, perceptions of threat, and pervasive stereotypes of newcomers, particularly during economic downturns or national crises (such as the 2000-2002 economic recession and the “war on terror” of the post-9/11 era), and when immigrants have arrived en masse and differed substantially from the native-born in religion, language, physical appearance, and world region of origin.3  The present period is no exception. California’s Proposition 187, which was passed with 59 percent of the statewide vote in 1994 (but challenged as unconstitutional and overturned by a federal court), asserted in its opening lines that “the people of California…have suffered and are suffering economic hardship [and] personal injury and damage caused by the criminal conduct of illegal aliens in this state.”4

Similarly, the “Illegal Immigration Relief Act Ordinance” passed in 2006 by the city council of Hazleton, Pennsylvania—the first of a number of such ordinances passed by local councils in 2006—declares in part that “illegal immigration leads to higher crime rates” and seeks accordingly to secure for the city’s legal residents and citizens “the right to live in peace free of the threat of crime” and to protect them from “crime committed by illegal aliens.”5  Such attitudes find support at the highest levels of political leadership. For instance, in his May 15, 2006, address to the nation on immigration reform, President George W. Bush asserted that: “Illegal immigration puts pressure on public schools and hospitals, it strains state and local budgets, and brings crime to our communities.”6

The misperception that the foreign-born, especially illegal immigrants, are responsible for higher crime rates is deeply rooted in American public opinion and is sustained by media anecdote and popular myth. But this perception is not supported empirically. In fact, it is refuted by the preponderance of scientific evidence. Both contemporary and historical data, including investigations carried out by major government commissions over the past century, have shown repeatedly and systematically that immigration actually is associated with lower crime rates.

A New Era of Mass Immigration

After a period of mass immigration from Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States experienced a relative lull in immigration from the 1920s to the 1960s. But the past few decades have ushered in a new era of large-scale immigration which has accelerated since the 1980s. This time the flows have come largely from Latin America and Asia, not from Europe. Over the past 15 years, the number of immigrants—both “legal” and “illegal”7 —coming to the United States has been the largest in its history in absolute terms. However, the percentage of the U.S. population that is foreign-born remains below the post-1850 highs recorded by each decennial census from 1860 through 1920, when immigrants comprised more than 13 percent of the population.8  According to the most recently available national data, in 2006 the foreign-born population totaled about 38.1 million, or just under 13 percent of the U.S. population.9

Roughly 12 million immigrants, or 30 percent of all foreign-born persons in the country, are unauthorized. The number of illegal immigrants has more than doubled since 1994. According to estimates by demographer Jeffrey Passel of the Pew Hispanic Center, by 2005 two-thirds (66 percent) of the unauthorized population had been in the country for 10 years or less, and the largest share, 40 percent or 4.4 million people, had been in the country five years or less. There were 1.8 million children who were unauthorized, or 16 percent of the total. In addition, 3.1 million children who are U.S. citizens by birth were living in households in which the head of the family or a spouse was unauthorized. About 56 percent of the unauthorized population was from Mexico, and another 22 percent from elsewhere in Latin America. The rest come from Asia, Europe, Canada, Africa, and elsewhere.10
Since 1993, the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border in four key sectors from San Diego to El Paso and the lower Rio Grande Valley, including a tripling of the number of Border Patrol agents and a quadrupling of the Border Patrol budget, has not deterred the flow of unauthorized migrants. Rather, as shown by several expert analyses, it has led to a booming industry of professional smugglers (coyotes) and redirected the flow of undocumented immigrants through more isolated and dangerous desert terrain, resulting in hundreds of deaths each year. Moreover, undocumented immigrants are heading to new destinations across all 50 states, including communities like Hazleton, rather than just traditional destinations in California and Texas. Another unintended consequence of heightened border enforcement is that the largely temporary population of “sojourner” workers that predominated in the past has been transformed into a population of permanent “settlers” who bring their families and stay, since the risks and costs of dangerous border crossings have sharply increased. For instance, in recent years coyotes have charged Mexican migrants about $3,000 per person to cross the border.11

Nonetheless, the illegal immigrant population still is disproportionately made up of poor young males who have recently arrived from Mexico—as well as from El Salvador, Guatemala, and a few other Latin American countries—to work in low-wage jobs requiring little formal education. These migrants are responding to the growing demand for their labor generated by the U.S. economy, which faces a demographic challenge to future labor-force growth as the fertility rate of natives declines and a growing number of native-born workers retire.12 As the Congressional Budget Office put it in a 2005 report: “The baby-boom generation’s exit from the labor force could well foreshadow a major shift in the role of foreign-born workers in the labor force. Unless native fertility rates increase, it is likely that most of the growth in the U.S. labor force will come from immigration by the middle of the century.”13 Conventional wisdom presumes a connection between the characteristics of workers who fill less-skilled jobs (young, male, poor, high-school dropout, ethnic minority) and the likelihood of involvement with crime, all the more when those young male workers are illegal migrants. But if immigration (legal or illegal) were associated with increasing crime rates, the official crime statistics would clearly reveal it. The opposite, however, is the case. 

Crime Rates Have Declined As Immigration Has Increased

At the same time that immigration—especially undocumented immigration—has reached and surpassed historic highs, crime rates in the United States have declined, notably in cities with large immigrant populations (including cities with large numbers of undocumented immigrants such as Los Angeles and border cities like San Diego and El Paso, as well as New York, Chicago, and Miami). The Uniform Crime Reports released each year by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) demonstrate the decline of both violent crime and property crime at the same time that the foreign-born population has grown.

From 1994 to 2005, the violent crime rate overall declined 34.2 percent, reaching the lowest level ever in 2005. In particular, homicide rates fell 37.8 percent to levels last seen in the late 1960s, robbery rates dropped 40.8 percent, and assault rates declined 31.9 percent {Figure 1}.14  Moreover, the proportion of serious violent crimes committed by juveniles decreased during this period and the number of gun crimes stabilized at levels last seen in 1988.15

The property crime rate as a whole declined 26.4 percent between 1994 and 2005. Specifically, burglary rates have stabilized after years of decline, theft rates reached the lowest level ever recorded in 2005, and motor-vehicle theft rates leveled off after 2000 {Figure 2}.16