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


Because many immigrants to the United States, especially Mexicans and Central Americans, are young men who arrive with very low levels of formal education, popular stereotypes and standard criminological theory tend to associate them with higher rates of crime and incarceration. The fact that many of these immigrants enter the country through unauthorized channels or overstay their visas often is framed as an assault against the “rule of law,” thereby reinforcing the impression that immigration and criminality are linked. This association has flourished in a post-9/11 climate of fear and ignorance where terrorism and undocumented immigration often are mentioned in the same breath.

But anecdotal impression cannot substitute for scientific evidence. In fact, data from the census and other sources show that for every ethnic group, without exception, incarceration rates among young men are lowest for immigrants, even those who are the least educated and the least acculturated. This holds true especially for the Mexicans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans who make up the bulk of the undocumented population. What is more, these patterns have been observed consistently over the last three decennial censuses, a period that spans the current era of mass immigration and mass imprisonment, and recall similar national-level findings reported by three major government commissions during the first three decades of the 20th century.

Given the cumulative weight of this evidence, immigration is arguably one of the reasons that crime rates have dropped in the United States over the past decade and a half. Indeed, a further implication of this evidence is that if immigrants suddenly disappeared and the country became immigrant-free (and illegal-immigrant free), crime rates would likely increase. The problem of crime and incarceration in the United States is not “caused” or even aggravated by immigrants, regardless of their legal status. But the misperception that the opposite is true persists among policymakers, the media, and the general public, thereby impoverishing a genuine understanding—a situation that undermines the development of reasoned public responses to both crime and immigration.


1 See Ramiro Martínez, Jr. and Abel Valenzuela, Jr., eds., Immigration and Crime: Race, Ethnicity, and Violence.  New York: New York University Press, 2006.

2 Rubén G. Rumbaut and Richard D. Alba, “Perceptions of Group Size and Group Position in ‘Multi-Ethnic United States.’” Presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, Atlanta, August 2003. See also Richard D. Alba, Rubén G. Rumbaut and Karen Marotz, “A Distorted Nation: Perceptions of Racial/Ethnic Group Sizes and Attitudes toward Immigrants and Other Minorities,” Social Forces 84(2), December 2005: 899-917.

3 Brian N. Fry, Nativism and Immigration: Regulating the American Dream. New York: LFB Scholarly, 2006.

4 California Ballot Proposition 187, Section 1 (1994).

5 City Council of Hazleton, PA, Ordinance 2006-18: “Illegal Immigration Relief Act Ordinance,” Sections 2(C) and 2(F).

6 White House, Office of the Press Secretary, “President Bush Addresses the Nation on Immigration Reform,” May 15, 2006.

7 As used in this report, “legal” immigrants consist of Legal Permanent Residents (LPRs)—about 40 percent of whom had been in the United States in other statuses (including temporary or unauthorized) before becoming LPRs—as well as LPRs who subsequently became naturalized U.S. citizens. “Illegal” immigrants are those who entered the country without proper authorization, or who entered the country lawfully with non-immigrant visas but subsequently over-stayed or violated the terms of their visas. Visa over-stayers and violators may make up as much as 40 percent of the illegal immigrant population (See Jeffrey S. Passel, The Size and Characteristics of the Unauthorized Migrant Population in the U.S.: Estimates Based on the March 2005 Current Population Survey. Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center, March 7, 2006, p. 16).

8 Campbell Gibson and Kay Jung, Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-Born Population of the United States: 1850 to 2000 (Population Division Working Paper No. 81). Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau, February 2006, Table 1.

9 These figures are weighted estimates drawn from the March 2006 Current Population Survey (CPS).

10 Jeffrey S. Passel, The Size and Characteristics of the Unauthorized Migrant Population in the U.S., March 7, 2006, pp. 2, 5, 7.

11 Wayne A.  Cornelius, “Impacts of Border Enforcement on Unauthorized Mexican Migration to the United States.” New York: Social Science Research Council, on-line forum on “Border Battles: The U.S. Immigration Debates,” September 26, 2006 {}; Douglas S. Massey, Jorge Durand and Nolan J. Malone, Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in an Era of Economic Integration. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation, 2002, Chapter 6.

12 See Immigration Policy Center, Economic Growth and Immigration: Bridging the Demographic Divide. Washington, DC: American Immigration Law Foundation, November 2005.

13 Congressional Budget Office, The Role of Immigrants in the U.S. Labor Market. Washington, DC: November 2005, p

14 U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics—Data Online, “Reported Crime in United States—Total, 1960-2005” {}.

15   U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Key Crime and Justice Facts at a Glance” {}.

16 U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Reported Crime in United States-Total, 1960-2005.”

17 Roy Walmsley, World Prison Population List, 6th edition. London: University of London, King’s College, School of Law, International Centre for Prison Studies, February 2005, p. 1

18 U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Corrections Statistics” {}; Paige M. Harrison and Allen J. Beck, Prisoners in 2005 (NCJ 215092). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, November 2006, pp. 2, 8.

19 National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, Behind Bars: Substance Abuse and America’s Prison Population. New York: Columbia University, January 1998, p. 2.

20 Paige M. Harrison and Allen J. Beck, Prisoners in 2005, November 2006, pp. 4, 8.

21 Caroline Wolf Harlow, Education and Correctional Populations (NCJ 195670). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, January 2003, p. 2.

22 Becky Pettit and Bruce Western, “Mass Imprisonment and the Life Course,” American Sociological Review 69 (2), April 2004: 156, 164.

23 Data from the 5% Public Use Microdata Samples (PUMS) of the 2000 Census are here used to measure the institutionalization rates of immigrants and natives, focusing on males 18 to 39, among whom the vast majority of the institutionalized are in correctional facilities. For a description of the methodology used to produce estimates of the incarcerated population from census data, see Kristin F. Butcher and Anne Morrison Piehl, Recent Immigrants: Unexpected Implications for Crime and Incarceration (Working Paper 6067). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, June 1997.

24 Census Bureau data are not available on the specific ethnicities of native-born, non-Hispanic whites and blacks. Therefore, comparisons of the native-born and foreign-born by ethnic group are possible only for Hispanics and non-Hispanic Asians. 

25 Data on education for these foreign-born populations are drawn from the 2000 Census, 5% PUMS. See also Alejandro Portes and Rubén G. Rumbaut, Immigrant America: A Portrait, 3rd edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

26 Foreign-born non-Hispanic blacks include Jamaicans, Haitians, West Indians, Nigerians, etc.

27 Kristin F. Butcher and Anne Morrison Piehl, “Recent Immigrants: Unexpected Implications for Crime and Incarceration,” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 51(4), July 1998: 654-679.

28 Kristin F. Butcher and Anne Morrison Piehl, Why Are Immigrants’ Incarceration Rates So Low? Evidence on Selective Immigration, Deterrence, and Deportation (WP 2005-19). Chicago: Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, November 2005, p. 2.

29 Robert J. Sampson, Jeffrey D. Morenoff and Stephen Raudenbush, “Social Anatomy of Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Violence,” American Journal of Public Health 95(2), February 2005: 224-232. See also Eyal Press, “Do immigrants Make Us Safer?,” The New York Times Magazine, December 3, 2006.

30 U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, U.S. Immigration Policy: Restoring Credibility. Washington, DC: 1994, p. 20.

31 Ramiro Martínez, Jr., Matthew T. Lee and A. L. Nielsen, “Segmented Assimilation, Local Context and Determinants of Drug Violence in Miami and San Diego: Does Ethnicity and Immigration Matter?,” International Migration Review 38(1), March 2004: 131-157; Matthew T. Lee, Ramiro Martínez, Jr. and Richard B. Rosenfeld, “Does Immigration Increase Homicide? Negative Evidence from Three Border Cities,” Sociological Quarterly 42(4), September 2001: 559–580

32 For a summary of these studies, see Ramiro Martínez, Jr. and Matthew T. Lee, “On Immigration and Crime,” July 2000, pp. 498-501.

33 Kathleen Mullan Harris, “The Health Status and Risk Behavior of Adolescents in Immigrant Families,” in Donald J. Hernández, ed., Children of Immigrants: Health, Adjustment, and Public Assistance. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences Press, 1999, pp. 286-347; Hoan N. Bui and Ornuma Thingniramol, “Immigration and Self-Reported Delinquency: The Interplay of Immigrant Generations, Gender, Race, and Ethnicity,” Journal of Crime and Justice 28(2), 2005: 79-100.

34 For a summary of these reports, see Michael Tonry, “Ethnicity, Crime, and Immigration,” in Michael Tonry, ed., Ethnicity, Crime, and Immigration: Comparative and Cross-National Perspectives. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996; Ramiro Martínez, Jr. and Matthew T. Lee, “On Immigration and Crime,” July 2000, pp. 495-498.

35 Reports of the Immigration Commission, 61st Congress, 3rd Session. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1911, p. 168.