Cepeda: The myth of immigrants and crime

CHICAGO--Depending on the mood of the country, immigrants are either welcome additions to a melting pot that always needs youth, or they're a pox upon our country, contributing to violence, crime and disease. But research dating back at least a c...


CHICAGO-Depending on the mood of the country, immigrants are either welcome additions to a melting pot that always needs youth, or they're a pox upon our country, contributing to violence, crime and disease. But research dating back at least a century unequivocally shows that the foreign-born are involved in crime at significantly lower rates than their U.S.-born peers.

"We don't always express these strong levels of apprehension or anxiety toward immigrants. Rather, these feelings build as the immigrant population grows," said Bianca E. Bersani, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts and the lead author on a new paper investigating the link between immigration and crime. "There is an ebb and flow that coincides with increasing and decreasing levels of immigration to the U.S."

Alex R. Piquero, a criminologist at the University of Texas at Dallas and Bersani's co-author added, "Immigrants simply do not commit crimes at the rates that people think they do. The anxieties are in large part because immigrants are, to natives, 'not like us.' They bring different cultures, religions, language and demographics than what many are used to and that frightens us and contributes to a pervasive view, absent any empirical data, that immigrants bring problems and take our jobs. That is simply not consistent with the facts, especially when it comes to crime."

Bersani and Piquero's data analysis reinforced previous research showing that the foreign-born pose no unique criminal threat. But they went a step further and answered the question: "How can we know the respondents didn't lie about their interactions with law enforcement?"

Misrepresentation is a problem with all research that relies on people self-reporting information that may put them in a negative light. And in the case of immigrants-both legal and unauthorized-it's well-known that they sometimes don't trust, or understand, the criminal justice system.


But when Bersani and Piquero set out to learn whether immigrants' lower levels of crime (compared with first- and subsequent-generation U.S.-born people) might be influenced by differing crime reporting practices between these generations, they found that immigrants do not have a greater tendency to underreport their offenses.

Their analysis of data that included both individual self-reports of crime and official records found "no evidence that foreign-born, first-generation immigrants underreport their arrest history. In fact, when evidence of divergence exists, it is in the direction of immigrants overreporting arrests."

Pervasive myths die hard, and the authors have already fielded inquiries about whether their research differentiates between legal and unauthorized immigrants.

Though overstaying a visa or entering the United States without authorization is a civil offense-not a criminal one-illegal immigrants are often viewed as being definitively linked to violence and crime.

"In our analysis we don't have the level of detail to distinguish citizenship status for the foreign-born group," Bersani told me in an email. "That said, we can't rule out that the data do not include illegal entrants either, but there are two things to note here. One, others who have looked at differences in offending comparing legal and illegal immigrants do not find that illegal immigrants are significantly different from legal immigrants. And, two, in practice, the lines between legal and illegal are often blurred, and other research has established that in many people's minds the status of immigrant, regardless of legality, is deemed 'intrinsically delinquent.'"

Predictably, the authors have been accused of pro-immigrant bias.

Piquero, the only one of the pair of researchers who is the child of immigrants, told me: "Many people think we are absolving illegal immigrants because they believe that immigrants and illegal immigrants are one and the same, and they are not." The science and data rule the day. Any person, regardless of their demographic, would have arrived at the same conclusion that we did."

As Bersani noted, the fervor with which negative assertions are made against immigrants varies depending on the circumstances.


According to the Pew Research Center, growth and dispersion of the U.S. Latino population has slowed since 2007, and immigration from Latin America has cooled even as Latino fertility rates have fallen. Immigrants from China and India-who, for better or worse, carry with them the "model minority" halo-are outpacing those from Mexico.

Maybe this demographic shift to an even more diverse group of new immigrants can help reverse some people's willful insistence on seeing all immigrants in a negative light.

Related Topics: CRIME
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