Ron Berger —
In July 2015 the murder of Kate Steinle in San Francisco by illegal immigrant Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez reignited political discussions about the link between immigration and crime. Donald Trump, of course, has led the charge, claiming that illegal immigrants are running rampant throughout country committing violent crimes. In doing so, Trump has gone farther than his predecessors in trying to exploit this issue, but he is not the first to do so.
During the 2007-2008 Republican presidential primary, for example, then Senator Fred Thompson tried to exploit the mass murders committed by Korean-born Cho Seung-Hui, an emotionally-disturbed college student, who went on a shooting rampage at Virginia Tech University in April 2007 that caused the death of 32 people. (Democratic vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine recently reminded us of this incident, which occurred when he was governor, to argue for more regulation of guns.) The following June, Thompson told an audience at the Prescott Bush Awards Dinner in Stamford, Connecticut, that the problem of illegal immigration meant that “we are now living in a nation that is beset by people who are suicidal maniacs and want to kill countless men, women, and children.” To most observers, it appeared as if Thompson was alluding to the Virginia Tech incident, even though Cho’s family had legally emigrated to the U.S. when he was eight years old.
To be sure, illegal immigration is a serious issue, but there is little doubt that politicians have exploited this concern to muster votes. While they clamor for increased law enforcement aimed at curtailing illegal immigration, few call for more law enforcement against the employers who illegally hire undocumented workers. Moreover, the irony of linking illegal immigration to other forms of crime is that there is little evidence that immigration increases crime. In fact, a large body of research using city crime data—most often examining Latino immigration, but not exclusively so—indicates that, all other things being equal, communities with a higher proportion of immigrants actually have less crime, and that immigration may even have contributed to the drop in crime rates the U.S. began to experience in the 1990s.
Skeptics of the “more immigrants, less crime” hypothesis that is supported by this research point out that immigrants who come into the country illegally may be less likely to report crimes by other immigrants (as well as non-immigrants) because they fear deportation if they come forward to the police, hence deflating these crime statistics. They also suggest that a reason immigrants may commit less crime is that they are deterred by this fear. Although most studies do not distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants, there is little evidence that the two groups vary in their rates of crime. On the other hand, proponents of the “more immigrants, less crime hypothesis” cite the traditional family values, higher rates of marriage, and extended family supports that create ethnic enclaves of stability within these communities. They also note that immigrants with low-paying jobs may be more motivated to work longer hours and may have more hope about the future than similarly-situated natives.
At the same time, some research does indicate that as subsequent generations of immigrants become acculturated to U.S. society, their rates of crime increase. Moreover, the growing presence of immigrant gangs and organized crime networks in some urban communities caution against an overly sanguine view of the immigration-crime relationship. I agree with journalist Ellis Cose, who concluded a decade ago that we need to start asking “some broader questions about assimilation, about how to ensure that people, once outsiders, don’t forever remain marginalized” within our nation.
Ellis Cose. 2007-2008. “The Rise of a New American Underclass.” Newsweek (Dec.), p. 74.
John Hagan and Alberto Palloni. 1999. “Sociological Criminology and the Mythology of Hispanic Immigration and Crime.” Social Problems 46, pp. 617-32.
Ramiro Martinez Jr. and Abel Valenzuela Jr. (eds.). 2006. Immigration and Crime: Race, Ethnicity, and Violence. New York University Press.
Tim Wadsworth. 2010. “Is Immigration Responsible for the Crime Drop? An Assessment of the Influence of Immigration on Changes in Violent Crime Between 1990 and 2000.” Social Science Quarterly 91, pp. 531-53.