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

Incarceration Rates Have Increased

However, alongside this new era of immigration, the U.S. incarceration rate has become the highest of any country in the world. There are more people behind bars in the United States than in either China or India, each of which has a population roughly 4 times larger than the United States.17  Between 1980 and 2005, the number of adults incarcerated in federal or state prisons or in local jails in the United States quadrupled from just over 500,000 to 2.2 million. This amounts to an increase in the incarceration rate from 139 prisoners for every 100,000 people in the country to 491 per 100,000. Two-thirds of those are in federal or state prisons and one-third in local jails. The vast majority are young men between 18 and 39.18 According to a 1998 study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, about 80 percent of those in prison either violated drug or alcohol laws, were high at the time they committed their crimes, stole property to buy drugs, had a history of drug and alcohol abuse and addiction, or some combination of those characteristics.19

Department of Justice statistics on incarceration are not broken down by nativity or generation, but the available data indicate that imprisonment rates vary widely by gender, ethnicity, and education. In 2005, about 93 percent of inmates in federal and state prisons were men, and there were 3,145 non-Hispanic black male prisoners per 100,000 black males in the United States and 1,244 Hispanic males per 100,000, compared to 471 non-Hispanic white males per 100,000.20  The majority of prison inmates are high-school dropouts.21  Among some minorities, particularly native-born blacks, imprisonment has become a common and defining event for men in early adulthood. As sociologists Becky Pettit and Bruce Western have noted, black men born in the late 1960s were more likely to have prison records than either military records or college degrees, and those who were high-school dropouts had a nearly 60 percent chance of having served time in prison by the end of the 1990s.22

Immigrants Have Lower Incarceration Rates Than Natives

Conventional theories of crime and incarceration predict higher rates of imprisonment for younger and less educated adult males from minority groups—characteristics which describe a much greater proportion of the foreign-born population than of the native-born, especially illegal immigrants. Foreign-born Mexican men comprise a third of all immigrant men between the ages of 18 and 39, have the lowest levels of education of any ethnic group in the country, and account for the majority of illegal immigrants. Therefore, they would be expected to have the highest rates of imprisonment, followed by Salvadorans and Guatemalans. However, an analysis of data from the 2000 U.S. Census23  reveals just the opposite to be the case.

    In 2000, 3 percent of the 45.2 million males age 18 to 39 in the United States were in federal or state prisons or local jails at the time of the census. Surprisingly, at least from the vantage point of conventional wisdom, the incarceration rate of native-born men in this age group (3.5 percent) was 5 times higher than the incarceration rate of foreign-born men (0.7 percent). The foreign-born rate was nearly two-and-a-half times less than the 1.7 percent rate for native-born non-Hispanic white men and almost 17 times less than the 11.6 percent rate for native-born black men. The lower incarceration rate among immigrants was found in every pan-ethnic category without exception. For instance, native-born Hispanic men were nearly 7 times more likely to be in prison than foreign-born Hispanic men, while the incarceration rate of native-born non-Hispanic white men was almost 3 times higher than that of foreign-born non-Hispanic white men {Figure 3}.

There also was wide variation in the incarceration rates of native and foreign-born men within particular ethnic groups. Among Hispanic men, for example, foreign-born Mexicans had an incarceration rate of only 0.7 percent—more than 8 times lower than the 5.9 percent rate of native-born males of Mexican descent. Similarly, 0.5 percent of foreign-born Salvadoran and Guatemalan men were in prison, compared to 3.0 percent of native-born males of Salvadoran and Guatemalan descent {Figure 4}.24 The incarceration rates of foreign-born Mexicans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans were the lowest of any Latin American immigrant group even though they were the least educated. These three nationalities are precisely the groups that make up the majority of illegal immigrants in the United States.
A similar range of variation was found among Asian men. For instance, foreign-born Chinese/Taiwanese men had an extremely low incarceration rate of 0.2 percent, which was three-and-a-half times lower than the 0.7 percent incarceration rate of native-born men of Chinese/Taiwanese descent. The incarceration rate of foreign-born Laotian and Cambodian men (0.9 percent) was the highest among Asian immigrant groups, but was more than 8 times lower than that of native-born men of Laotian and Cambodian descent (7.3 percent). With the exception of Laotians and Cambodians, foreign-born men from Asian countries had lower incarceration rates than those from Latin American countries, as did their native-born counterparts. This is not surprising given that immigrants from India, Taiwan, China, South Korea, and the Philippines are among the most educated groups in the United States, while immigrants from Cambodia, Laos, Mexico, and Central American countries are among the least educated {Figure 5}.25