A Primer on Debunking the Immigration-Crime Link

We may be a bit late, but the Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana would like to extend well wishes on this Fourth of July. As we take time to celebrate with family and friends, I’d like to reflect on something especially relevant in today’s public forum: immigration. The American promise of a safe and prosperous future for all has never been more important and what better time than to explore the topic.


Immigrants are an undeniably crucial component of the American experience and have shaped every aspect of our cultural landscape since the earliest arrival of English Puritans. Immigrants have also been at the center of a hotly contested debate ranging on for centuries: what is proper place for immigrants in an American society? Our struggle with understanding how immigrants fit into the national patchwork of cultures means that tensions often arise between prevailing value systems and what is seen as foreign. Scores of immigrants have been discriminated against because of national origin, religious practice, or family custom (SEE: anti-Catholic Irish sentiment from the 1840s, anti-Italian movements of the 1920s and 30s – or our most recent entry – anti-Latin American politics). Yes, it may be incendiary to say, but discrimination against immigrants is as much an American past time as enjoying a slice of apple pie at a baseball game. Since 2001, the research organization Gallup has been conducting national surveys on immigration and national climate[1]. In each poll taken since then, a near majority see immigration as threat to crime conditions (50%[2]) and taxes (47.4%2). Beyond this, large portions of those surveyed see immigrants as equally harmful to job prospects (33.4%2) and the direction of the nation’s ethos (29.6%2). In recent years this sentiment has been experiencing a resurgence on both sides of the Atlantic as the Western World confronts a swell in migration attributable to civil conflict in Syria and areas across Saharan Africa. This has undoubtedly become a major issue as nations struggle to balance empathetic traditions with the fears of assimilation gone awry.


The maintenance of identity and culture are at the root of this for many. So naturally, as a scientist, an inquiring mind begs the question: do immigrants in fact pose a threat to societies? To examine this, we can take the single belief that immigrants serve as a threat to community stability by increasing crime rates. Although literature on the topic is new and ever-growing, there are some numbers that can be used as a reference in sorting this all out. The academy has done much of this work and has offered some interesting perspective on the matter. Despite commonly cited political rhetoric and conventional wisdom, Robert Sampson – prolific Harvard Criminologist Theorist – suggested early in the discussion that immigrants do not increase crime and may even be a source of negative influence on criminal activity. This notion of the “healthy immigrant” contends that individuals bring with them non-criminogenic characteristics that are culturally-based and that serve to buffer from strains like poverty and marginalization which may drive criminal inclinations. This idea has been supported by the work on intimate partner violence where it is suggested that social ties between immigrant communities operate as mechanisms that actually discourage and deter anti-social behaviors[3]. Similarly, Martinez, Stowell, and Lee (2010), in their study of homicide rates across San Diego neighborhoods, found that immigration serves as a community “revitalizer” and that the percentage of foreign born in a given environment reduces the rate of violent crime over time[4],5. Most recently, a collaborative of scholars investigated urban crime rates across 200 of the largest U.S. cities from 1970 to 2010 and found overwhelming evidence that increases in immigration were unconnected to crime rates and were instead consistently linked to decreases in both violent and property crime[5]. Despite the national immigrant population increasing nearly 120% since 1980, city after city saw steady – and in some cases – precipitous declines in criminal activity. Among those few metro areas where crime did increase, immigration growth was lowest. Greensboro, North Carolina, for example, saw a 720% increase in its immigration population and yet assaults decreased by a rate of 29%, robberies by 19%, and the murder rate was halved. Here at home in New Orleans, the immigrant population growth – tethered to the events of hurricane Katrina – grew by 90% during the same period. Coming largely from parts of Central America, Vietnam, and Mexico, these immigrants rebuilt the city during its most vulnerable hour and built their way into the community. For the weary New Orleanian, however, I say fear not because much like in Greensboro, rates of assault (-24%), robbery (-65%), and homicide (-15%) have all declined and continue to decline[6].


Immigration was a centerpiece of the 2016 election cycle dialogue and continues to be an issue that politicians look to tackle. To say that the current system is broken is not entirely untrue. The procedures around legal immigration are far too cumbersome and keep many in legal limbo. There are real policy solutions to be had in the domain of immigration, but it is crucial that the public forum not divest from reality. To say immigrants are the cause of a nation’s social, economic, or cultural problems has been witnessed in history before. However, the evidence is clear and at least in regards to safety, there is reason to suspect that immigration has a net positive impact on community crime. Unless you find yourself distracted by the musings of political demagoguery, there is no reason to believe otherwise. Immigrants are an important part of the American fabric and are the foundation of what it is to be American: self-reliant, hard-working, and striving for equality before the law.

[1] https://news.gallup.com/poll/1660/immigration.aspx

[2] Percentages calculated by averaging scores from Gallup Immigration Surveys taken in 2001, 2002, 2004, 2007, and 2017

[3] Emily M. Wright, Michael L. Benson; Immigration and Intimate Partner Violence: Exploring the Immigrant Paradox, Social Problems, Volume 57, Issue 3, 1 August 2010, Pages 480–503,

[4] Martinez Jr., R., Stowell, J. I., & Lee, M. T. (2010). Immigration and crime in an era of transformation: A longitudinal analysis of homicides in San Diego neighborhoods, 1980-2000. Criminology, 797-829.

5 This finding was later echoed in Lee, Martinez, and Rosenfeld’s 2016 extending the thesis to Miami and El Paso

6 Robert Adelman, Lesley Williams Reid, Gail Markle, Saskia Weiss & Charles Jaret (2017) Urban crime rates and the changing face of immigration: Evidence across four decades, Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice, 15:1, 52-77

7 https://www.themarshallproject.org/2018/03/30/the-myth-of-the-criminal-immigrant

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