Undocumented Immigrants and Crime – Dispelling Myths

Kyle asked via email whether there are any studies which show that undocumented immigrants commit less crimes than American citizens. The one study we should be familiar with is the one from IPC last year, which is here. This was the summary of their research:

  • At the same time that immigration—especially undocumented immigration—has reached or surpassed historic highs, crime rates have declined, notably in cities with large numbers of undocumented immigrants, including border cities like El Paso and San Diego.
  • Incarceration rate for native-born men in the 18-39 age group was five times higher than for foreign-born men in the same age group.
  • Data from the census and other sources show that for every ethnic group, incarceration rates among young men are lowest for immigrants, even those who are least educated and least acculturated.

There is also one from this year (2008) –
Immigrants and Crime: Setting the Record Straight <http://www.immigrationpolicy.org/index.php?content=fc080313a> (Immigration Policy Center – March 2008) – Dispels myths about immigrants and criminality.

Washington-based nonprofit Immigration Policy Center, found that on the national level, U.S.-born men ages 18-39 are five times more likely to be incarcerated than are their foreign-born peers. And, while the number of illegal immigrants in the country doubled between 1994 and 2005, violent crime declined by nearly 35% and property crimes by 26% over the same period.

One 2005 study conducted by researchers from Harvard University and the University of Michigan found that immigrants actually commit fewer crimes than native-born citizens.

Another study, which examined data from the U.S. Census Bureau, found that among men aged 18 to 39, the incarceration rate for native-born citizens is five times higher than for the foreign-born individuals. This held true within ethnic and national-origin groups; native-born Latinos, for example, were more likely to be incarcerated than foreign-born Latinos.

A more recent study by the Public Policy Institute of California  is limited to California but also focused on all immigrants. The report summary follows:

Immigrants are far less likely than the average U.S. native to commit crime in California, according to this issue of California Counts. For example, among men ages 18-40 – the age group most likely to commit crime – the U.S.-born are 10 times more likely than the foreign-born to be in jail or prison. Even among noncitizen men from Mexico ages 18-40 – a group disproportionately likely to have entered the United States illegally – the authors find very low rates of institutionalization. Such findings suggest that longstanding fears of immigration as a threat to public safety are unjustified.

The PPIC even determined that on average, between 2000 and 2005, cities such as Los Angeles that took in a higher share of recent immigrants saw their crime rates fall further than cities with a lower influx of illegals.

While we can win the arguments using the data sets from the studies above, the bigger problem is media and public perception of “illegal immigrant.” Usage of “illegal” as a noun functions as prima facie evidence of “criminality” for most people. We have to counter the false perception that “illegal presence” in this country is a crime–it is NOT.

Secondly, even if there are high rates of institutionalization amongst undocumented immigrants, we can turn to sociological premises and studies. A great analogy can be drawn with the case of African American males — just because they make up the majority of our prison populations, does not mean that African Americans are bound to be “criminal.” Rather, it points to the racism in our criminal justice system, socio-economic conditions such as poverty and lack of opportunity.

Similar conditions apply to Hispanic populations in prisons. Here is another great sociological paper countering the mythology of Hispanic immigration and crime. It is almost a decade old but the premises of the study still hold.

The USA also has the highest rates of incarceration in this country and with the rise of the migrant-prison complex (increased crackdowns on undocumented immigrants, detentions, border security), the focus is indeed on jailing immigrants for profit.

The following is from http://thepoliticsofimmigration.org/ referring to the incarceration of undocumented immigrants:

1. The government doesn’t keep statistics on the breakdown of
documented and undocumented immigrants.

2. The 270,000 number is probably an estimate. If so, it’s probably an
estimate of the number of undocumented immigrant prisoners *during the
course of the year.* The 2.1 million figure is the prison population
on a give date, like 12/31/05. You can’t compare the two numbers.

See these links for more:



If I find any other relevant studies, I will update this post.

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