III. Theories on the Relationship Between Immigration and Crime
Several theories have been used to explain the relationship between immigration and crime as well as patterns of criminal behavior in different immigrant groups and generations. These theories focus on different factors considered important in shaping individual behavior and immigration resettlement experiences.
A. Self-Selection Theory
Low levels of criminality among early immigrants have led to the assumption that these immigrants were self-selected economic individuals who had a low criminal tendency. This is known as self-selection theory. Advocates of self-selection theory argue that because these immigrants left their homeland and came to the United States for economic opportunities, most of them were hard working. Due to their interest in long-term advancement, they behaved themselves and avoided getting into trouble with the law. Recently, Butcher and Piehl (2005) used the model of labor market outcomes to explain low levels of criminality among immigrants who came to the United States after 1965 and to support the self-selection hypothesis. According to Butcher and Piehl, some occupational skills are transferable across countries but translate into different earnings across places. Thus, low-earning skills in one country may be translated into a very different level of earning in other countries. When possible, immigrants will choose to move to a country where their earnings will be higher, and the economic outcomes can serve as a protection against criminal activities.
B. Social Structure Theories
Social structure theories focus on socioeconomic structures that shape economic opportunities, which in turn influence criminal tendency. According to strain theory, developed by Merton (1938), material success depends on education and job opportunities, which are not equally available to everyone. When legitimate opportunities are not available, crime can be an innovative alternative to achieve material goals. Because many new immigrants are unskilled and poorly educated, and because economic opportunities do not penetrate urban ghettos, where many new immigrants resettle, crime is likely to be an option. Social disorganization theory, developed by Shaw and McKay (1942), emphasizes the adverse social conditions in urban ghettoes that facilitate the breakdown of community institutions and social control mechanisms. According to this theory, poverty, high levels of population turnover, cultural heterogeneity, and the presence of a large number of adult criminals weaken social control and foster delinquency. Immigration increases crime because it causes social change and creates social disorganization that makes social control less effective.
C. Culture-Based Theories
The subculture-of-violence theory, developed by Wolfgang and Ferracuti (1967), suggests that as poor people adapt to their structural conditions, violence can become a normal and expected means of dispute resolution in deprived and disorganized communities. Because new immigrants are more likely than native individuals to live in these areas, it is assumed that they are more likely to engage in violent crime. Culture conflict theory, on the other hand, emphasizes the difference between U.S. laws and cultural traditions that immigrants brought from their home countries. According to Sellin (1938), criminal law reflects the values and interests of the dominant groups, and the system of values and norms among immigrants may be quite different. When the cultural codes of immigrants are in conflict with those of the host society, the behavior of immigrants will be labeled deviant or criminal. Thus, the conflict of cultures is a reason for crime among immigrants.
D. Acculturation and Assimilation Perspectives
Acculturation, or cultural assimilation, refers to changes in attitudes and/or behaviors as a result of contact with other cultures. Among immigrants and their children, cultural change occurs on a number of dimensions, including the language, cultural beliefs, values, behaviors, and one’s loyalty and sense of belonging to the host culture and one’s culture of origin. The classic assimilation model proposed by Gordon (1964) posits that acculturation to and acceptance by the host society are prerequisites for social and economic mobility. The acquisition of English proficiency, higher levels of education, and valuable new job skills can ease the adaptation process and improve the immigrants’ chance of success in the U.S. economy. A lack of acculturation is considered a factor that contributes to crime and delinquency among immigrants who lack knowledge of new legal norms and thus the ability to adapt to the new economy.
Research findings about low levels of crime and delinquency among the foreign-born have challenged the classic model of assimilation and suggest that acculturation also has negative consequences. Recent literature indicates that the longer immigrants and their children live in the United States, the more they become subject to economic and social forces, such as high rates of family disintegration and substance use, that are found to be associated with criminal behavior among the natives. In addition, with greater time and socialization in U.S. institutions, neighborhoods, and youth culture, the children of immigrants increasingly adopt behavioral norms of the host society, including health and risk behaviors. Acculturated adolescents are likely to challenge the cultural mandate regarding parental control and authority when they experience conflicting sets of expectations from their foreign-born parents and persons from the larger society with whom they are in most immediate contact. Thus, acculturation can facilitate delinquency by weakening parent–child relationships and diminishing parental authority.
E. Segmented Assimilation Perspective
The segmented assimilation perspective was developed with a focus on the changing U.S. economy and labor market and how they affect the experience of recent immigrants who have come mostly from Asia and Latin America. According to Portes and Zhou (1993), new immigrants and their children experience different adaptation processes based on the characteristics of the U.S. population in which they are integrated. Consequently, greater exposure to American culture may be associated with mixed adaptation outcomes. Depending on the type of human capital (education and skills) and social capital (social resources and supportive opportunities) that different immigrant groups possess, one path will lead to the assimilation of the immigrants and their children to the middle-class majority. An opposite type of adaptation caused by poverty and racial segregation will lead to downward mobility and the assimilation of immigrants and their children into the inner-city underclass. The exposure to and contacts with various types of social problems commonly found in lower class neighborhoods will facilitate crime and delinquency among children of immigrants. Adherence to the traditional values and retention of ethnic identity will lead to the third path of adaptation, with rapid economic advancement and the preservation of values and solidarity among immigrants. Communities of co-ethnic people can supply to new immigrants the types of social capital that can protect against criminal behavior by increasing economic opportunities, enforcing norms against divorce and family disruption, and reinforcing parental authority over children.