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

Immigrants Have Lower Incarceration Rates Than Natives Among High-School Dropouts

For all ethnic groups, as expected, the risk of imprisonment was highest for men who were high-school dropouts (6.9 percent) compared to those who were high-school graduates (2.0 percent). However, the greatest difference in the risk of incarceration by education was observed among native-born men, not immigrants. Among the U.S.-born, 9.8 percent of all male high-school dropouts age 18 to 39 were in jail or prison in 2000, compared to 2.2 percent among high-school graduates. But among the foreign-born, the incarceration gap by education was much narrower. Only 1.3 percent of immigrant men who were high-school dropouts were incarcerated, compared to 0.6 percent of those with at least a high-school diploma.
Nativity emerged as a stronger predictor of incarceration than education for all ethnic categories. Among U.S.-born men who had not finished high school, the highest incarceration rate by far was seen among non-Hispanic blacks, 22.3 percent of whom were imprisoned at the time of the 2000 Census—more than triple the 7.1 percent incarceration rate among foreign-born black high-school dropouts.26 Among non-Hispanic whites who had not finished high school, 4.8 percent of the U.S.-born were in prison, triple the 1.6 percent rate among foreign-born non-Hispanic white high-school dropouts. The incarceration rate of native-born Hispanic men without a high-school diploma (12.4 percent) was more than 11 times higher than the 1.1 percent rate of foreign-born Hispanic high-school dropouts {Figure 6}.

    Again, there was considerable variation in the incarceration rates of male high-school dropouts within each ethnic group. Among Hispanics, 0.7 percent of foreign-born Mexicans without a high-school diploma were imprisoned—more than 14 times less than the 10.1 percent of native-born male high-school dropouts of Mexican descent behind bars. Only 0.6 percent of foreign-born Salvadoran and Guatemalan high-school dropouts were in prison, which was nearly 8 times lower than the 4.7 percent incarceration rate among native-born men of Salvadoran and Guatemalan descent who lacked high-school diplomas {Figure 7}.
Even greater differences between the incarceration rates of native-born and foreign-born men without a high-school diploma were found among Asian groups. The 0.9 percent incarceration rate of foreign-born Vietnamese high-school dropouts was vastly lower than the 16.2 percent rate of native-born high-school dropouts of Vietnamese descent. Similarly, the incarceration rate of native-born high-school dropouts of Indian descent (6.7 percent) was far greater than the 0.3 percent rate among foreign-born Indian high-school dropouts {Figure 8}.
The 2000 Census data yielded similar results for California, the state with the greatest number of both legal and illegal immigrants—over a quarter of the national total, including the largest concentrations by far of Mexicans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans—and with the greatest number of people in prisons and jails. Overall, native-born men age 18 to 39 in California had higher incarceration rates than the rest of the United States, while the foreign-born had lower rates in California compared to the rest of the country. The incarceration rate for the native-born was more than one percentage point higher in California than in the rest of the country (4.5 percent to 3.4 percent). In contrast, the incarceration rate for the foreign-born in California was less than half the foreign-born rate in the rest of the country (0.4 percent to 1.0 percent).