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Immigrants and Crime: Perception vs. Reality, Cato Immigration Reform Bulletin No. 3

Immigrants and Crime: Perception vs. Reality, Cato Immigration Reform Bulletin No. 3

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Published by: Cato Institute on Jun 28, 2010
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ecent events in Arizona show how quickly con-cerns about possible crimes committed by immigrants can dominate the immigrationpolicy debate. The murder of an Arizona rancher in March became the catalyst for thestate legislature passing a controversial bill to grant police offi-cers wider latitude to check the immigration status of individ-uals they encounter. But do the facts showimmigrants are more likely to commitcrimes than natives?The situation in Arizona is a classic caseof perception becoming more importantthan statistics. “There is nothing morepowerful than a story about a gruesomemurder or assault that leads in the localnews and drives public opinion that it isnot safe anywhere,” according to ScottDecker, an Arizona State University crimi-nologist.
In a recent article, Daniel Griswold, director of the Centerfor Trade Policies Studies at the Cato Institute, writes,“According to the most recent figures from the U.S.Department of Justice, the violent crime rate in Arizona in2008 was the lowest it has been since 1971; the property crimerate fell to its lowest point since 1966. In the past decade, asillegal immigrants were drawn in record numbers by the hous-ing boom, the rate of violent crimes in Phoenix and the entirestate fell by more than 20 percent, a steeper drop than in theoverall U.S. crime rate.”
Griswold notes that in a story in the
 Arizona Republic 
, theassistant police chief in Nogales, Roy Bermudez, “shakes hishead and smiles when he hears politicians and pundits declar-ing that Mexican cartel violence is overrunning his Arizona border town. ‘We have not, thank God, witnessed any spillover violence from Mexico,’ Chief Bermudez says emphatically.‘You can look at the crime stats. I think Nogales, Arizona, isone of the safest places to live in all of America.’”
Data show immigrants are less likely to commit crimes thanthe native-born, a pattern confirmed by a 2008 study of data from California: “Whenwe consider all institutionalization (notonly prisons but also jails, halfway houses,and the like) and focus on the populationthat is most likely to be in institutionsbecause of criminal activity (men 18-40),we find that, in California, U.S.-born menhave an institutionalization rate that is 10times higher than that of foreign-bornmen (4.2 percent vs. 0.42 percent). Andwhen we compare foreign-born men toU.S.-born men with similar age and education levels, these dif-ference become even greater,” according to research by econo-mists Kristin F. Butcher (Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago)and Anne Morrison Piehl (Rutgers University and theNational Bureau of Economic Research). Looking only at pris-ons, the researchers found, “U.S.-born adult men are incarcer-ated at a rate two-and-a-half times greater than that of foreign-born men.”
National studies have reached the conclusion that foreign-born (both legal and illegal immigrants) are less likely to com-mit crimes than the native-born. “Among men age 18-39 (whocomprise the vast majority of the prison population), the 3.5percent incarceration rate of the native-born in 2000 was 5times higher than the 0.7 percent incarceration rate of the for-
an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and executive director, National Foundation for American Policy.
Immigrants and Crime:Perception vs. Reality 
Data showimmigrantsare less likely to commitcrimes thanthe native-born.
JUNE 2010
eign-born,” according to the ImmigrationPolicy Center.
Those studying the issue point to logicalexplanations as to why the crime rate of immigrants is low. “Currently U.S. immigra-tion policy provides several mechanisms thatare likely to reduce the criminal activity of immigrants,” write Butcher and Piehl. “Legalimmigrants are screened with regard to theircriminal backgrounds. In addition, all non-citizens, even those in the U.S. legally, are sub- ject to deportation if convicted of a criminaloffense that is punishable by a prison sen-tence of a year or more, even if that is sus-pended. Furthermore, those in the country illegally have an additional incentive to avoidcontact with law enforcement—even forminor offenses—since such contact is likely toincrease the chances that their illegal statuswill be revealed.”
In new research published in the June2010 issue of 
Social Science Quarterly
,University of Colorado at Boulder sociologistTim Wadsworth examined U.S. Census andUniform Crime Report data in U.S. cities.Wadsworth notes that one reason to conductsuch research was the historical perceptionthat immigrants increase the rate of crime:“The popular discourse surrounding anti-immigrant legislation rests on the assump-tion that encouraging, allowing, or not doingenough to prohibit poor, unskilled, and une-ducated individuals to immigrate increasescrime rates and the danger of victimization.Sometimes the concerns focus on all immi-gration, other times only illegal immigration,and in much of the discourse a clear distinc-tion is not made.”
Wadsworth examined U.S. cities with a population of 50,000 or higher and used“cross-sectional time-series models to deter-mine how changes in immigration influ-enced changes in homicide and robbery ratesbetween 1990 and 2000.” The results wereclear: “[C]ities with the largest increases inimmigration between 1990 and 2000 experi-enced the largest decreases in homicide androbbery during the same time period. … Thefindings offer insights into the complex rela-tionship between immigration and crimeand suggest that growth in immigration may have been responsible for part of the precipi-tous crime drop of the 1990s.”
Wadsworth is not the only researcher tomake this connection. He notes that in 2006Harvard University sociologist RobertSampson “proposed that not only haveimmigrants not increased crime, but they may be partly responsible for one of the mostprecipitous declines in crime that the U.S.has ever experienced.” Wadsworth concludes,“The current findings offer empirical sup-port to this claim. Time-series models sug-gest that the widely-held belief that has moti- vated much of the public and political dis-course about immigration and crime iswrong. In contrast, the research offers initialsupport for the idea that the increase inimmigration was partially responsible for thedecrease in homicide and robbery in urbanareas between 1990 and 2000.”
The murder of Arizona rancher RobertKrentz remains unsolved. It is unclearwhether the perpetrator was involved in drugsmuggling, human smuggling, born in theU.S. or an illegal immigrant.In general, we know that illegal immi-grants do not exhibit violent resistance whenapprehended by U.S. Border Patrol Agents. Inmore than 10 million apprehensions since2000 we have not seen much evidence of those entering illegally to work in the U.S.arming themselves to fight Border Patrol Agents. However, individuals linked to organ-ized crime rings are likely to be armed, giventheir involvement in drug or human smug-gling and the money involved.In the case of immigration, the lack of tem-porary work visas and the increased difficulty of entering illegally due to increased enforce-ment have compelled more illegal immi-grants to turn to coyotes—middlemen whoguide illegal immigrants across the border toevade the Border Patrol. With the lure of money, criminal gangs have taken over mostof the smuggling operations. Illegal immi-grants themselves are often victims of thesesmugglers: Arizona police report increased
 provides timely informa-tion, insight, and analysis about effortsto expand opportunities for legal immi- gration to the United States. The bulletin seeks to highlight immigration policiesthat promote economic growth, national  security, and individual liberty.
For more informationon immigration policy,visit www.cato.org/immigration.

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