Study finds immigrants reduce crime rates, suffer from other disparities
on October 15, 2015
Contrary to popular belief and campaign season rhetoric, immigrants reduce crime rates in American cities and, for a while, help to improve social stability in their neighborhoods, a new report has found.
In fact, while immigrant families and their children eventually start to commit more crimes, the report suggests that happens only after the newcomers have had time to assimilate to American culture.
A panel of 18 leading experts on immigration authored the report, titled “The Integration of Immigrants into American Society,” which compiled the findings of the latest immigration studies over the last two decades.
The research indicates that although these newcomers lower crime rates, they also face unique challenges. Immigrants from Mexico and Central America generally arrive in the United States with less than 10 years of schooling. Their children complete more than 12 years of formal education, but still fail to catch up with native-born children.
Immigrants also have a lower earning potential. The foreign-born are only 5 percent above the national poverty rate.
One of the largest challenges that immigrants face is how they are perceived. The report found that Americans believe immigrants commit more crimes than natives, in part because they are disproportionately male and young—characteristics associated with crime. The new report contradicts popular opinion. Incarceration rates of immigrant males, ages 18-39, are 50 percent less than the native-born. That figure includes immigrant males in jail for immigration violations and remained true for all immigrants, regardless of race or ethnicity.
The foreign-born population in Richmond increased from a quarter to a third since the year 2000. Over the last decade, the city’s total number of crime incidents decreased by the same amount, from 8,168 in 2004 to 5,151 in 2014.
Once known for having one of the worst per capita murder rates in the country, Richmond is now a safer city lined with taquerias, and where one in three people speak Spanish.
Some locals see a connection.
“After fleeing war or poverty, immigrants have a strong motivation to make their lives here as stable as possible,” said former Richmond mayor and current Councilmember Gayle McLaughlin. “They add peace and stability to our community.”
A Gallup poll found that half of Americans think immigrants increase crime, a perception that scholars believe comes from the media and the mouths of some politicians. Days after the July shooting of a woman in San Francisco by an undocumented Mexican became a national news story, Donald Trump referred to Mexicans as “rapists.” Although the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found that the number of rapes committed in the United States was nearly six times higher than in Mexico, the report claims that so-called “issue-entrepreneurs,” like Trump, succeed in convincing the public that immigrants commit crimes.
“Whenever an undocumented immigrant commits a violent crime people use it as an example that immigrants make communities unsafe,” said Irene Bloemraad, a sociology professor at UC Berkeley who helped draft the new report. “It might surprise the general public, but that’s just not the case.”
The report that Bloemraad helped author claims that “dramatic differences” exist between immigrants and the native-born. Hispanic men born outside the U.S. have an incarceration rate that is one-seventh that of U.S.-born Hispanic men. Men born in Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador with low levels of education—immigrants who are most likely to be undocumented—were one-third as likely to wind up in jail than native-born men with a similar amount of schooling.
As immigrants assimilate, their children commit higher levels of crime than their parents, roughly equal to non-immigrants. The study also states that assimilated immigrants who both speak English and have attained legal immigration status in the U.S. also commit more crimes.
The Richmond Police Department reported a 10 percent increase in crime during the first quarter of 2015, raising the question of whether immigrant children will eventually contribute to an uptick in the city’s crime. The department does not keep records about the immigration status of those who commit crimes, but Lt. Andre Hill said authorities give some credit to Richmond’s immigrant community for helping to make the city safer over the last decade.
He cites Richmond’s status as a sanctuary city as a factor that deters immigrants from running afoul with the law.
“Immigrants in Richmond are like locals in the Bahamas who don’t jack tourists because they want them to come back,” Hill said. “People don’t bring crime to a city that protects them.”
While working on the report, Bloemraad said that the most disturbing thing she learned was from a study that found the children of undocumented immigrants experience cognitive delays and higher incidents of mental health issues during adolescence.
The research suggests that while the arrival of immigrant families improves safety in American communities by lowering crime rates, immigrants themselves face longterm disadvantages.
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