The link between immigration and crime became a research topic at the turn of the 20th century, after immigrants from Europe came to the United States in large numbers. The immigration–crime relationship was not a major research topic before this because the trend of immigration was slow during this period and because it was believed that large segments of European immigrants coming in the early 20th century were already assimilated to U.S. society.
Concerns about the connection between immigration and crime have a long-standing history in the United States, dating back to colonial times. Increased immigration was believed to be associated with increased criminal activity. Negative perceptions of new immigrants were exacerbated by the fact that the British frequently shipped convicts on a large scale for white servitude in certain colonies where labor was needed. The colonists were also disturbed by people who fled to United States to escape the consequences of misbehavior committed in their homeland; these undesirable free immigrants were believed likely to become troublesome citizens. As the practice of transportation of convicts by the British came to an end with the Revolutionary War, new concerns arose regarding European immigrants who came to the United States after experiencing hunger and hardship of long wars in their country of origin. In addition, belief remained that several European governments continued sending felons to the United States. Thus, perceptions arose that new immigrants disproportionately engaged in crime because they belonged to the criminal class or because they were unable to adjust to new conditions of American life.
The perception about the positive relationship between immigration and crime also appears to be motivated by anti-immigrant, xenophobic sentiments. Negative stereotypes of newcomers often ensue from periods of increased immigration, in particular during economic downturns or when new immigrants differ substantially from the natives in cultural, racial, and/or ethnic backgrounds. In recent years, concerns about negative consequences of immigration to the United States have been based on the assumption that immigrants have caused many social problems to U.S. society, including changing the American ways of life, depleting welfare resources, increasing unemployment among native-born persons, causing housing shortages, overwhelming school and health care systems, and undermining the existing social order. The media also have blamed immigrants for the drug problem in the United States, accusing illegal immigrants of flooding drugs into the country.
These perceptions about immigrants have had important policy implications. Numerous policies aimed at reducing the flow of immigration, restricting immigration from certain countries, limiting social benefits for immigrants, or increasing penalties for immigration violations have been implemented throughout history in response to these negative perceptions. This research paper examines the immigration– crime link, beginning with an overview of U.S. immigration history. This is followed by discussions of theories about the relationship between immigration and crime, research findings about patterns of crime and factors affecting crime among immigrants and their children (the second generation), and crime victimization experienced by immigrants.