By Walter Ewing
New America Media
Among the many troubling aspects of the public debate over immigration is the power of myths over facts. One of the most enduring myths about immigration, despite literally decades of evidence to the contrary, is the belief that immigrants are more likely to commit crime than the native-born.
This myth is so widespread and unquestioned that it has been the catalyst for scores of local governments to consider anti-immigrant ordinances over the past year. These calls to crack down on undocumented immigrants, the employers who hire them and the landlords who rent to them, are framed in part as “anti-crime” ordinances.
The city council of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, for instance, passed an ordinance last September claiming that “illegal immigration leads to higher crime rates” and that the council therefore must protect legal residents of the city from “crimes committed by illegal aliens.”
Because most of the undocumented immigrants in Hazleton and other communities throughout the United States are young men from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and elsewhere in Latin America, who have little money or formal education, it is assumed that they are more likely to commit crimes than the native-born.
Government and academic studies, however, have demonstrated repeatedly for over a century that immigrants actually are less likely to commit crimes than the native-born. Even though immigration has increased dramatically over the past decade and a half, the crime rate in the United States has declined.
Since 1994, the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States has more than doubled to 12 million. Immigrants, both legal and undocumented, now comprise just under 13 percent of the population. Yet, according to the FBI, between 1994 and 2005 the violent crime rate (murder, robbery, rape, assault) fell 34.2 percent and the property crime rate (burglary, theft) dropped 26.4 percent.
Cities with large and growing immigrant populations such as Los Angeles, New York, Miami and Chicago also experienced this downward trend in crime. If immigrationeither legal or undocumentedwere associated with crime, then crime rates should be rising.
An upcoming report from the Immigration Policy Center further dispels the notion that immigration and crime are connected. Using data from the 2000 Census, the report shows that immigrants are less likely than the native-born to be behind bars. Among men age 18 to 39 (who comprise the vast majority of inmates in federal and state prisons and local jails), immigrants were five times less likely to be incarcerated than the native-born in 2000.
About 3.5 percent of native-born men were in prison, compared with 0.7 percent of foreign-born men. Immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala were much less likely to be in prison than native-born, non-Hispanic whites. Roughly 0.7 percent of foreign-born Mexican men and 0.5 percent of foreign-born Salvadoran and Guatemalan men were in prison, compared with 1.7 percent of native-born, non-Hispanic white men.
These findings are not new. Three government commissions investigated the relationship between immigration and crime during the last era of large-scale immigration to the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when millions of immigrants arrived from Italy, Ireland, Russia, Poland, and other nations in Europe. All three commissions came to the same conclusion: immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than natives.
As the [Dillingham] Immigration Commission of 1911 concluded: “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.”
Despite a century’s worth of evidence that immigration does not breed crime, the stereotype of immigrants as criminals continues to flourish in the media and among policy-makers. Popular movies and television shows often feature gun-wielding, drug-dealing criminals from south of the border. News reports of violent crimes committed by gangs such as the Salvadoran Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) often overshadow the fact that an extraordinarily small number of immigrants are in gangs and that gangs are found in every ethnic group among both natives and the foreign-born.
Adding insult to injury, many politicians regularly declare their resolve to stem the criminal tide allegedly unleashed by undocumented immigrants. Even President Bush, who favors immigration reform that creates more legal channels for immigration to the United States, declared in a May 15, 2006 address to the nation that illegal immigration “brings crime to our communities.”
There is no denying that crime is a serious problem in the United States. But it is not a problem created or even aggravated by immigration. Quite the opposite, in fact. Immigrants are less likely to commit crimes of all types than the native-born. This suggests that crime is linked not to one’s place of birth, but to the many other forces which foster crime in this country, especially in relatively poor communities: high rates of divorce and family disintegration, high rates of alcohol and drug abuse, etc.
The solution to crime does not lie in immigration policy. And the solution to undocumented immigration does not lie in misguided “get tough” policies that scapegoat immigrants as criminals.
Walter Ewing is a Research Associate at the Immigration Policy Center.