IV. Relationships Between Immigration and Crime
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. With the open-door policy under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, new immigrants again arrived in the United States in numbers not seen since the turn of the 20th century. Post-1965 immigration, which included large numbers of Asians, Afro-Caribbeans, and Latinos, renewed research interest in the topic partly because of increased public debates about the costs and benefits of immigration and partly because of the coincidence of two social phenomena: (1) the arrival of new immigrants and (2) the rise in crime rates in the 1970s and the 1980s. There were also concerns about low levels of labor market skills among new immigrants, especially those who arrived through clandestine channels and legal loopholes. Early and recent studies produced different findings but did not show strong evidence about the causal effects of immigration on crime. Instead, they indicated the effects of various socioeconomic factors on criminal behavior among immigrants.
A. No Negative Effects of Immigration on Crime
Several early and recent studies did not find evidence about the negative effect of immigration on the crime problem. Findings from three early studies, including those of the Industrial Commission (1901), the Immigration Commission (1911), and the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement (also popularly known as the Wickersham Commission, 1931–1932), indicated that, on the macrolevel, cities with a high proportion of foreign-born persons did not necessarily have higher crime rates than cities with a lower proportion of foreign-born persons. On the microlevel, foreign-born whites were viewed as less criminal than U.S.- born whites because they had lower rates of incarceration. Court records also showed that foreign-born people were less likely than native-born people to be found guilty of crime. Research in recent years has provided similar findings, showing that neighborhoods with large concentrations of the foreign-born had lower levels of violence than those with smaller proportions of foreign-born residents. Cities near the U.S.–Mexico border, such as El Paso, Texas, and San Diego, California, have been ranked as low-crime areas, and cities with concentrated immigrant populations, such as New York, have been considered among the safest places in the United States. Research on several ethnic–racial groups perceived as having high levels of crime provided further evidence for a low level of crime among immigrants. Compared with U.S.- born Mexican Americans, foreign-born Mexicans in the United States have lower rates of arrest, conviction, and incarceration. In Miami, Florida, Haitian and Latino immigrants are underrepresented in homicide relative to their group sizes. Homicide rates among Haitians are much lower than those among U.S.-born blacks in the same area and, in some cases, even lower than those among U.S.-born whites. Mariel refugees, who came to the United States from Cuba in the 1980s, were rarely overrepresented among homicide offenders. Although they were likely to be involved in acquaintance homicides, there is little evidence that they were disproportionately involved in stranger homicide or that they were unusually violent, as suggested by dominant themes in popular stereotypes.
Although most of the research just discussed did not explain the reason for the low levels of arrest and conviction among foreign-born immigrants, a recent study conducted by Butcher and Piehl (2005) suggested that the self-selected nature of immigrants explains their low levels of criminality. They found that recent immigrants from all racial and ethnic backgrounds had lower levels of education but that they also had substantially lower levels of incarceration than natives, even during the time period when institutionalization expanded. In 2000, among men ages 18 through 39, the group that made up the vast majority of the prison population, the foreign-born had an incarceration rate (0.7%) that was 5 times lower than that of the native-born (3.5%). After finding no support for other explanations (e.g., increased deportation and deterrence), Butcher and Piehl concluded that immigrants were self-selected from among those with a low criminal propensity.
B. Age and Gender Structure and Crime Among Immigrants
Not all studies have found low levels of crime among immigrants, however. Because young males have higher crime rates than other age and gender groups, the large proportions of young males in particular immigrant groups can contribute to high levels of crime in these groups. Incarceration rates among immigrants from Ireland and Germany in the 1850s were more than 10 times higher than those among the native-born, and these two immigrant groups had a large proportion (60%) of young males. In the study conducted by the Industrial Commission (1901), foreign-born whites had an overall imprisonment rate that was higher than the rate among U.S.-born whites but lower than the rate among U.S.-born blacks. However, among people aged 20 to 45, imprisonment rates among the foreign-born were only 15% higher than those among the native whites and, among the adult male population (age 21 or older), foreign-born whites had lower imprisonment rates than native-born whites. Research on Mexican immigrants in the 1930s suggested that a large proportion of young males was a reason behind the high offending rates in this group. Recent studies also have indicated the effect of age and gender on crime rate among immigrants. In Miami, homicide rates increased shortly after Afro- Caribbean immigrants (including Mariel Cubans, Haitians, and Jamaicans) arrived in the 1980s. In late 1990s, when these immigrant groups grew in size, became older, and had low proportions of young males, their homicide rates rapidly declined, dropping below the average national rate for cities of Miami’s size (Martinez & Lee, 2000). According to Hagan and Palloni (1998), Hispanic immigrants are disproportionately young males who, regardless of immigration status, are at a greater risk of criminal involvement. When age and gender are taken into account, the involvement of Hispanic immigrants in crime is less than that among the native-born.
C. Socioeconomic Conditions of Immigration Resettlement and Crime
Negative experience with emigration and resettlement are considered factors that contribute to adaptation outcomes. Problems faced by immigrants in their country of origin before emigration and their negative experience during the process of immigration and resettlement, including physical torture, posttraumatic stress disorder, discrimination, and alienation, can be associated with the tendency to commit crime. Research indicates that Southeast Asians in the United States were more likely than native whites to engage in crimes that produced financial gains, such as theft, auto theft, and petty theft. Youthful crime among Southeast Asians has been considered as emerging out of the cohort that first arrived in 1980; many of them were alienated youth who had emigrated without parents, suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder caused by hardship in the process of immigration, and experienced adaptation problems.
Crime rates among immigrants also vary across locations, even for the same racial and ethnic groups. Among Puerto Rican newcomers, those living in New York City tend to have higher rates of homicide, whereas those living elsewhere have rates comparable to those among native whites. In rural areas in Texas and California, where the Mexican populations are large, the criminality of foreign-born Mexicans is relatively lower than that among the native-born. In more urban communities, Mexican immigrants have relatively higher crime rates. The role of immigration in contributing to high levels of crime in some locations of concentrated immigration is considered limited, but economic deprivations and social disorganization are seen as main factors. In a well-known study of delinquency in urban areas conducted in Chicago in the early part of the 20th century, Shaw and McKay (1942) found high arrest rates for delinquency in areas with large concentrations of immigrants. As these immigrant groups moved from poor areas into places where crime rates were lower, the groups’ arrest rates also fell. Recent research also has shown that high levels of violent crime among Latinos in major cities in California were associated with the existence of local alcohol outlets and other vice-related businesses.
D. Cultural Conflicts and Crime Among Immigrants
Besides different levels of criminality, patterns of crime committed by immigrants and native-born individuals also differ. Early research showed that, for gainful offenses (or property offenses, including robbery, burglary, theft, and fraud), native-born people had higher conviction rates than foreign-born groups. For offenses against public policy (e.g., carrying weapons, intoxication, vagrancy, and truancy), the foreign-born had greater conviction rates than the native-born. The formal criminal charge rates for homicide and aggravated assault among the foreign-born approached those among native-born whites, and in some locations were even slightly higher. Different patterns of offending were also found across national groups. The Italian group stood out for high conviction rates for homicide, rape, and kidnapping; Russians for larceny and receiving stolen goods; and French for offenses against chastity and for prostitution. Mexicans had higher arrest rates than native-born whites, but the vast majority of Mexican arrests were for public order misdemeanors, such as vagrancy, possession of marijuana, and public intoxication. Asian immigrants had consistently low arrest rates, except for gambling. Foreign-born Chinese had the highest arrest rate of any ethnic group in San Francisco, and gambling in particular led to unusually high arrest rates among Chinese in San Francisco and other major cities.
Different patterns of crime between foreign-born groups and native-born groups, and among different national groups, suggest the impact of cultural conflicts on criminal behavior. The Wickersham Commission (1931) identified two factors that brought early immigrants into conflict with the law. First, immigrants’ ignorance of the language (English) was a source of confusion and misunderstanding about laws, regulations, and customs in the United States. Many immigrants were arrested for unknowingly violating ordinances that regulated licenses and provided for sanitary and fire prevention inspections. Second, immigrants brought with them a well-defined set of habits of thought and behavior, which had been built up in an environment that was entirely different, in regard to law and custom, in the United States. During the Prohibition era, U.S. laws about gambling; prostitution; and the manufacture, sale, and consumption of beer, wine, and liquor were entirely different from those in the countries from which the immigrants came. Their lifetime habits and experience in the country of origin did not readily prepare them for change. Some immigrants groups also held a strong belief in personal and family pride and were accustomed to the practice of men’s use of violence, including killing, to wipe out any stain brought upon the honor of their women. Because of the availability of weapons that many immigrants carried to protect personal safety in certain locations, flaring anger over issues of honor often inevitably led to fatal endings. This was considered one of the primary reasons for the high percentage of violent crime among the foreign-born.
In recent years, culture conflicts were also considered a factor contributing to domestic violence in immigrant families. Gender inequality, women’s subordination to men, and cultural and legal norms that give men the right to control women are considered factors contributing to domestic violence. In the United States, cultural and legal norms that support gender equality as well as economic opportunities for women often change the power dynamics within immigrant families. Being threatened by the perceived or actual loss of power, but not familiar with the prohibition of domestic violence in the United States, often facilitates immigrant men’s use of violence against their wives or female partners.
E. Crime in the Second Generation
Research evidence suggests that although immigrants do not disproportionately engage in criminal activity, the crime problem is associated with the second generation (i.e., U.S.-born children of foreign-born immigrants), whose members have higher rates of arrest, charge, and incarceration than those among foreign-born immigrants. Sometimes, the levels of criminality among members of the second generation are even higher than those among the native-born of native parentage (third and higher generations). Patterns of offense committed by members of the second generation also shift away from those found among their foreign-born parents toward those among the native-born. Early studies indicated that public intoxication was the most common offense among foreign-born whites, but sons of the foreign-born were arrested and charged with serious crime against persons and property (e.g., homicide and fraud) very much more frequently than their foreign-born parents. In regard to robbery, arrest rates among members of the second generation were 4 times greater than those among their foreign-born parents and even surpassed arrest rates among U.S.-born whites of U.S.-born parents. In regard to incarceration, U.S.-born whites of foreign-born parents (the second generation) had an imprisonment rate that was 3 times greater than the rate among U.S.-born whites of U.S.-born parents. Questions about organized crime among immigrants also emerged during the Prohibition era. Limited data showed that comparatively few of the gangsters were foreign-born, but a high proportion of them were the sons of foreign-born parents reared in the slums ofAmerican cities. Recent research also shows that members of the second and third generations were much more likely than their first-generation counterparts to engage in substance use and to commit property and violent crimes, including homicide.
Although the second generation has an overall higher level of criminality than individuals among their foreign-born parents, the gap in criminality between the first and second generations varies across racial groups, locations, and types of offense. Recent research indicates that second-generation immigrants living in communities with high immigration concentrations tended to have lower levels of crime than those living in communities with low concentrations of immigrants. Crime rates among the second generation were also higher in areas with higher levels of poverty and unemployment. However, among white and Asian American adolescents, substance use increased in the second and third generations, but there was little change for violent and property delinquency across generations. On the other hand, among black adolescents, violent and property delinquency increased in the second and third generations, but substance use remained the same across three generations.
The overall high level of criminality among the second generation appears to be consistent with self-selection theory. The children of immigrants are not self-selected, and many are unable to overcome the challenges they encounter in their new homeland, including the lack of education and economic opportunities as well as culture conflicts, alienation, and exposure to deviant subculture. On the other hand, variations in the changing patterns of delinquency across locations and generations for different racial groups suggest the effects of acculturation and segmented assimilation on crime and delinquency. Increased levels of substance use among second-generation Asian and white youth suggest the result of acculturation and the integration of these youth into the mainstream society and the American middle class. Alcohol, which technically is a drug, has become a part of American culture, and moderate drinking is positively associated with incomes and education, which are higher among non-Hispanic whites and Asians than among blacks and Hispanics. On the contrary, the pattern of increasing violent and property delinquency among blacks and Hispanics in the second and third generations reflects the assimilation and integration of these youth into the adversarial subculture of disorganized and deprived neighborhoods. Blacks and Hispanics experience higher levels of poverty and residential segregation than their white and Asian counterparts. As the protective effects of traditional families, ethnic cultures, and ethnic identity diminish in the second and later generations, living in the slum facilitates the assimilation of second-generation black and Hispanic youth into the neighborhoods’ deviant subculture and increases their involvement in property and violent delinquency.
F. Crime Among Non-Citizens
The term non-citizens used in crime reports compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics refers to permanent residents, alien immigrants who are not naturalized or who do not have permanent resident status, foreign nationals who are in the country temporarily, and illegal immigrants (or undocumented immigrants). Crime committed by alien immigrants was included for the first time in the report titled “Report on Crime and the Foreign-Born,” issued by the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement (1931). Although not all alien immigrants entered the United States illegally, they were considered a different group from immigrants who had the legal status of permanent residents. The report indicated a considerable number of homicides (12%–25% of all offenses) committed by alien immigrants incarcerated in U.S. penal institutions. Although it was not possible for the investigation to compare homicide rates among aliens, naturalized immigrants, and native-born groups, the commission was concerned with the fact that a large proportion of incarcerated alien immigrants committed these serious crimes shortly after their arrival in the United States.
In recent years, confusions between legal immigrants and illegal immigrants often exist in debates about immigration and crime. There has been a tendency to lump these two groups into the general term immigrants. When illegal immigrants are distinguished from legal immigrants, the first group is often thought of being responsible for a large proportion of criminal behaviors committed in the United States. It has been argued that because of the risk of deportation, illegal immigrants are afraid to report crimes committed against them to the police, making official estimates of crime in the illegal immigrant community artificially low. No evidence exists, however, that reporting biases seriously affect estimates of the homicide victimization rates because, unlike other crimes, homicide cases need to have a body. In fact, at the national level, the homicides committed by illegal immigrants in the United States are reflected in the data just like homicides in other social groups. The view that illegal immigrants disproportionately engage in serious criminal behavior is not consistent with the fact that from 1994 to 2001, violent crime rates in the United States declined 34.2% and property crime declined 26.4%, while in the same period of time, the illegal immigrant population doubled to 12 million.
Available statistics from the Department of Justice indicate that the number of non-citizens in the federal criminal justice system increased for the period of 10 years from 1994 to 2003, but most non-citizens in federal prisons were foreign nationals who had been in the country temporarily. These non-citizen offenders were overwhelmingly charged with immigration offenses, including unlawful entry and reentry as well as smuggling, transporting, or harboring unlawful aliens. A smaller proportion of non-citizen offenders were charged with drug-related offenses. Because of their short period of time in the United States, they were less likely than their U.S.-citizen counterparts to have a known criminal history. Non-citizens have also been found to disproportionately engage in organized crime. According to Perry (2000), new immigrants from Latin America, Africa, Asia, and eastern Europe, particularly Russia, are all represented in organized-crime groups, but a substantial proportion of organized crime groups include foreign nationals who came to the United States with the explicit intent of expanding the domain and market of the organizations that already exist in their home countries. Asian syndicates tend to control much of the drug smuggling, prostitution, and other vice markets on the West Coast as well as parts of New York and New Jersey. Caribbean cartels dominate the drug trade in the southeast United States. Fraud, extortion, and burglary by Russian mafia are less localized but spread across the nation. Nigerians, operating in small cells, engage in some heroin smuggling, but they are more commonly specialized in massive fraud schemes. These criminal groups are able to exploit their bonds with current immigrants on the basis of their common place of origin as well as their cultural and social desire to reproduce the structures of hierarchy, complicity, and conspiracy of silence similar to those in their homelands.