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

The Risk Of Incarceration For Immigrants Increases Over Time

The 2000 Census shows that the risk of incarceration is higher not only for the children of immigrants, but for immigrants themselves the longer they have resided in the United States. Among foreign-born Hispanic men, the incarceration rate nearly tripled from 0.6 percent for those who had been in the United States 5 years or less to 1.7 percent for those with 16 or more years of residence. Similarly, foreign-born non-Hispanic white men and black men who had been in the country for 16 or more years were more than twice as likely to be in prison as those who had been in the United States for 5 years or less {Figure 9}. However, even immigrants who had resided in the United States for 16+ years were far less likely to be incarcerated than their native-born counterparts in each pan-ethnic category.
The increasing risk of incarceration among foreign-born men the longer they reside in the United States varied among the different nationalities within pan-ethnic categories. Among foreign-born men from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Cuba, the chance of being in prison was more than twice as great for those in the country 16 years or more as for those with 5 years or less of residence. The incarceration rate for Colombians, Ecuadorians, and Peruvians in the country 5 years or less was more than 3 times lower than for those with 16 or more years of residence {Figure 10}. Among foreign-born Asian men, the risk of incarceration was 3 times greater for Chinese/Taiwanese and Indian men with 16+ years of residence than for those with 0-5 years and 5 times greater for Koreans who had been in the country for 16 years or more {Figure 11}.

Similar Results From Other Studies

The evidence from the 2000 Census demonstrating the lower rate of incarceration among immigrants is reinforced by other studies conducted over the past century. For instance, a study by economists Kristin Butcher and Anne Morrison Piehl based on data from the 1980 and 1990 Censuses yielded similar findings.27  A more recent analysis by Butcher and Piehl demonstrates that these findings are not the result of increased deportations of non-citizen criminals or the impact of harsher immigration laws in deterring immigrants from committing crimes. Rather, the authors conclude that during the 1990s, “those immigrants who chose to come to the United States were less likely to be involved in criminal activity than earlier immigrants and the native born.”28 Taken together, studies such as these provide consistent and compelling evidence over a period of three decades that incarceration rates are much lower among immigrant men than the national norm despite their lower levels of education and higher rates of poverty. In 2000, these patterns applied to every ethnic group without exception.

Other scholars, such as sociologist Robert J. Sampson, have addressed similar questions concerning immigration and crime and concluded that increased immigration is a major factor associated with lower crime rates. In a study of 180 Chicago neighborhoods from 1995 to 2002, Sampson and his colleagues found that Latin American immigrants were less likely than the U.S.-born to commit violent crimes even when they lived in dense communities with high rates of poverty. First-generation immigrants (foreign-born) were 45 percent less likely to commit violent crimes than were third-generation Americans (children of native-born parents), adjusting for family and neighborhood background. The second generation (those born in the United States to immigrant parents) was 22 percent less likely to commit violence than the third or higher generation.29 Similarly, the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform concluded in a 1994 report that immigration is not associated with higher crime. The Commission compared crime rates in U.S.-Mexico border cities such as El Paso with cities elsewhere in the United States and found that crime rates generally were lower in border cities.30

Recent empirical studies by sociologists Ramiro Martínez and Matthew Lee of homicides in three high-immigration border cities (San Diego, El Paso, and Miami) and of drug violence in Miami and San Diego came to similar conclusions, further refuting commonly presumed linkages between immigration and criminality.31 In addition, several other studies have examined homicide rates among the Cuban refugees who arrived in the United States as a result of the Mariel Boatlift of 1980. Although these marielitos frequently were depicted in the media as prolific criminal offenders, even murderers, they in fact were not overrepresented among either homicide victims or offenders. Moreover, after only a short time in the United States, they were much less likely to commit crimes than Cubans who arrived in Miami before the Mariel Boatlift. As with south Florida in general, Miami experienced a sharp spike in homicides before the Mariel Cubans arrived in the city. Homicide rates continued to decline throughout the 1980s despite a steady inflow of Latin American immigrants. 32

Data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) further demonstrate the intra- and inter-generational differences in delinquency and other risk behaviors among adolescents. Add Health is a nationally representative longitudinal survey of adolescents conducted in several “waves” since 1994. Drawing upon this survey, sociologists Kathleen Mullan Harris, and Hoan Bui and Ornuma Thingniramol, have found that second-generation youth were significantly more prone to engage in risk behaviors such as delinquency, violence, and substance abuse than foreign-born youth. In their analyses, every first-generation nationality had significantly fewer health problems and engaged in fewer risk behaviors than the comparable group of native-born non-Hispanic whites.33

In a sense, these findings should not come as news, for they are not new—merely forgotten and overruled by popular myth. In the first three decades of the 20th century, during the previous era of mass immigration, three major government commissions came to similar conclusions. The Industrial Commission of 1901, the [Dillingham] Immigration Commission of 1911, and the [Wickersham] National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement of 1931 each sought to measure how immigration resulted in increases in crime. Instead, each found lower levels of criminal involvement among the foreign-born and higher levels among their native-born counterparts.34 As the report of the Dillingham Commission concluded a century ago: “No satisfactory evidence has yet been produced to show that immigration has resulted in an increase in crime disproportionate to the increase in adult population. Such comparable statistics of crime and population as it has been possible to obtain indicate that immigrants are less prone to commit crime than are native Americans” {emphasis added}.35