Rethinking Crime and Immigration

Robert J. Sampson – Contexts

Copyright Contexts
The summer of 2007 witnessed a perfect storm of controversy over immigration to the United States. After building for months with angry debate, a widely touted immigration reform bill supported by President George W. Bush and many leaders in Congress failed decisively. Recriminations soon followed across the political spectrum.
Just when it seemed media attention couldn’t be greater, a human tragedy unfolded with the horrifying execution-style murders of three teenagers in Newark, N.J., attributed by authorities to illegal aliens.
Presidential candidate Rep. Tom Tancredo (R–Colorado) descended on Newark to blame city leaders for encouraging illegal immigration, while Newt Gingrich declared the “war at home” against illegal immigrants was more deadly than the battlefields of Iraq. National headlines and outrage reached a feverish pitch, with Newark offering politicians a potent new symbol and a brown face to replace the infamous Willie Horton, who committed armed robbery and rape while on a weekend furlough from his life sentence to a Massachusetts prison. Another presidential candidate, former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson, seemed to capture the mood of the times at the Prescott Bush Awards Dinner: “Twelve million illegal immigrants later, we are now living in a nation that is beset by people who are suicidal maniacs and want to kill countless innocent men, women, and children around the world.”
Now imagine a nearly opposite, fact-based scenario. Consider that immigration—even if illegal—is associated with lower crime rates in most disadvantaged urban neighborhoods. Or that increasing immigration tracks with the broad reduction in crime the United States has witnessed since the 1990s.
Well before the 2007 Summer of Discontent over immigration, I proposed we take such ideas seriously. Based on hindsight I shouldn’t have been surprised by the intense reaction to what I thought at the time was a rather logical reflection. From the right came loud guffaws, expletive-filled insults, angry web postings, and not-so-thinly veiled threats. But the left wasn’t so happy either, because my argument assumes racial and ethnic differences in crime not tidily attributable to material deprivation or discrimination—the canonical explanations.
Although Americans hold polarizing and conflicting views about its value, immigration is a major social force that will continue for some time. It thus pays to reconsider the role of immigration in shaping crime, cities, culture, and societal change writ large, especially in this era of social anxiety and vitriolic claims about immigration’s reign of terror.
some facts
Consider first the “Latino Paradox.” Hispanic Americans do better on a wide range of social indicators—including propensity to violence—than one would expect given their socioeconomic disadvantages. To assess this paradox in more depth, my colleagues and I examined violent acts committed by nearly 3,000 males and females in Chicago ranging in age from 8 to 25 between 1995 and 2003. The study selected whites, blacks, and Hispanics (primarily Mexican-Americans) from 180 neighborhoods ranging from highly segregated to very integrated. We also analyzed data from police records, the U.S. Census, and a separate survey of more than 8,000 Chicago residents who were asked about the characteristics of their neighborhoods.
Notably, we found a significantly lower rate of violence among Mexican-Americans compared to blacks and whites. A major reason is that more than a quarter of those of Mexican descent were born abroad and more than half lived in neighborhoods where the majority of residents were also Mexican. In particular, first-generation immigrants (those born outside the United States) were 45 percent less likely to commit violence than third-generation Americans, adjusting for individual, family, and neighborhood background. Second-generation immigrants were 22 percent less likely to commit violence than the third generation. This pattern held true for non-Hispanic whites and blacks as well. Our study further showed living in a neighborhood of concentrated immigration was directly associated with lower violence (again, after taking into account a host of correlated factors, including poverty and an individual’s immigrant status). Immigration thus appeared “protective” against violence.
Consider next the implications of these findings when set against the backdrop of one of the most profound social changes to visit the United States in recent decades. Foreign immigration to the United States rose sharply in the 1990s, especially from Mexico and especially to immigrant enclaves in large cities. Overall, the foreign-born population increased by more than 50 percent in 10 years, to 31 million in 2000. A report by the Pew Hispanic Center found immigration grew most significantly in the mid-1990s and hit its peak at the end of the decade, when the national homicide rate plunged to levels not seen since the 1960s. Immigrant flows have receded since 2001 but remain high, while the national homicide rate leveled off and seems now to be creeping up. Both trends are compared over time at left.
The pattern upends popular stereotypes. Among the public, policy makers, and even many academics, a common expectation is that the concentration of immigrants and the influx of foreigners drive up crime rates because of the assumed propensities of these groups to commit crimes and settle in poor, presumably disorganized communities. This belief is so pervasive that in our Chicago study the concentration of Latinos in a neighborhood strongly predicted perceptions of disorder no matter the actual amount of disorder or rate of reported crimes. And yet immigrants appear in general to be less violent than people born in America, particularly when they live in neighborhoods with high numbers of other immigrants.
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