Immigration and Crime
Abstract and Keywords
In the context of crime, victimization, and immigration in the United States, research shows that people are afraid of immigrants because they think immigrants are a threat to their safety and engage in many violent and property crimes. However, quantitative research has consistently shown that being foreign born is negatively associated with crime overall and is not significantly associated with committing either violent or property crime. If an undocumented immigrant is arrested for a criminal offense, it tends to be for a misdemeanor. Researchers suggest that undocumented immigrants may be less likely to engage in serious criminal offending behavior because they seek to earn money and not to draw attention to themselves. Additionally, immigrants who have access to social services are less likely to engage in crime than those who live in communities where such access is not available. In regard to victimization, immigrants are more likely to be victims of crime. Foreign-born victims of crime may not report their victimization because of fears that they will experience negative consequences if they contact the police. Recently, concern about immigration and victimization has turned to refugees who are at risk of harm from traffickers, who warehouse them, threaten them, and physically abuse them with impunity. More research is needed on the relationship among immigration, offending, and victimization. The United States and other nations that focus on border security may be misplacing their efforts during global crises that result in forced migrations. Poverty and war, among other social conditions that would “encourage” a person to leave their homeland in search of a better life, should be addressed by governments when enforcing immigration laws and policy.
Citizens in the United States have been concerned, since Colonial days, with crime, and worry that they will be victimized by immigrants (Mears, 2001). The concern is based on the belief that foreign-born individuals are members of a criminal class who threaten community cohesion by committing a disproportionately large number of violent and property crimes. Violent crimes include homicide, rape, robbery, and assault. Property crimes include theft and fraud. Some offenses are crimes of habitation that involve threats against a person and their property (for example, burglary). According to Fox News (2015): “Statistics show the estimated 11.7 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. account for 13.6 percent of all offenders sentenced for crimes committed in the U.S. Twelve percent of murder sentences, 20 percent of kidnapping sentences and 16 percent of drug trafficking sentences are meted out to illegal immigrants.” Are these sentencing numbers high? Are they low? Should there be a concern about crimes committed by both legal and illegal immigrants? Research consistently shows that foreign-born individuals are less likely to commit crime than naturalized citizens in the United States and that immigration status may abate crime within a community.
Immigration Numbers and Patterns in the United States
The United States is the third most populous nation in the world, with a 2015 estimated population of 323 million people.1 In general, the United States has been adding about 1 million immigrants each year since 1990, and in 2013 there were over 13 million immigrants with permanent residency status. The most populous U.S. states are California (about 39 million), Texas (about 27 million), Florida (about 20 million), New York (about 20 million), and Illinois (about 13 million). These states also have the highest number of immigrants (Migration Policy Institute, 2013a). California, New York, Texas, and Florida account for 60% of the foreign-born population. While it is difficult to ascertain the exact number of illegal immigrants, various agencies (U.S. Department of Homeland Security, PEW Research Center, and the Center for Migration Studies) estimate the number of immigrants who either came into the United States illegally or overstayed their visas to be between 11 and 11.5 million people (Sherman, 2015; U.S. Census Bureau, 2014). Between 2010 and 2014, foreign-born persons were about 13% of the total U.S. population (Figure 1).
In the early 20th century, the majority of immigrants came from Europe. Immigration changes since the early 20th century have been marked by changes in country of origin and other demographic characteristics. By 2014, the percentage of Europeans living in the United States had decreased from a high in 1960 of 60% of the foreign-born immigrants in the United States to 11% (Zong & Batalova, 2015). Most European immigrants (62%) have become naturalized citizens, but only 44% of the total foreign-born population in the United States have been naturalized (Grieco et al., 2012). Many new immigrants are coming from Asia, Central and South America, Africa, and the Middle East. According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2014), about 35% of the foreign-born population in the United States came since 2000. About 75% of foreign-born persons in the United States are married and are between the ages of 18 and 44. Immigrants have higher birth rates than native-born women in the United States. Between 2009 and 2010, 70.3 per 1,000 foreign-born women gave birth within the preceding year, compared to 51.5 per 1,000 native-born women. The Migration Policy Institute (2015) estimates that “Immigrants and their U.S.-born children now number approximately 80 million persons, or one-quarter of the total U.S. population.”2
Crime Rate Numbers and Patterns in the United States
Arrest, sentencing, and incarceration rates have been changing in the late the 20th and early 21st centuries. Since reaching an all-time high in both violent and property crime in the mid-1990s, the number and rate of violent and property crime in the United States have been steadily declining (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2015a), while the incarceration rate, until very recently, had been increasing. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report (2015), arrests decreased 20% between 2005 and 2015; between 2013 and 2014, violent crime arrests decreased 0.2%, and property crime arrests decreased 4.3%. In 2014, more offenders were arrested for drug crimes (1,561,231) than property crimes (1,553,980) and violent crimes (498,666) (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2015b). The states with the highest violent and property crime rates neither are the most populous nor house the largest number of immigrants. In 2015, the states with the highest reported crime rates were: Louisiana, Alabama, Alaska, Tennessee, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Arkansas, Delaware, and Missouri (Frohlich, Stebbins, & Sauter, 2015). In the United States, places with the largest increases in population have been associated with the largest decreases in crime rates in the past decade. The majority of arrestees in 2014 were white (69%) and male (73%) (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2015c). In sampled U.S. cities, Stowell, Messner, McGeever, and Raffalovich (2009) found that as the foreign-born, immigrant population in the cities went up, the violent crime rate went down (Figure 2).
The incarceration rate in the United States is the highest in the world: it is presently 693 inmates per 100,000 people in the population; the United Kingdom has the second highest rate, at 145 per 100,000 people in the population (Wagner & Walsh, 2016). Between 2005 and 2010, the increase in incarceration within the United States was higher among U.S. citizens (16% increase) than among foreign-born persons (7% increase; Government Accounting Office, 2011). The Bureau of Justice Statistics (2009) reported that, between 2000 and 2008, the population of foreign-born/non-U.S. citizens housed in all U.S. jails was between 6 and 9% of all detainees. The estimated number of persons held in U.S. jails decreased 1% in 2012, from a high in 2010 of 748,700, to 744,500 detainees; the estimated number of persons incarcerated in U.S. prisons decreased 2%, from 1,521,400 inmates in 2010 to 1,483,900 inmates in 2012 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2013). According to Mauer and King (2007), the sentencing of racial and ethnic minorities in the United States is disproportionate. While the disproportionate sentencing of African Americans has been documented for many years, Mauer and King note that there has been a disproportionate increase in the number of Hispanic persons sentenced in state and federal prisons. They found that, in 2005, Hispanics comprised 20% of the U.S. prison population, an increase of 45% since 1990 (see Figures 3 and 4).
Crime and Immigration Research
It is important when looking at crime statistics to consider numbers, rates, population counts, and types of crime and victimization reported or underreported. Social, cultural, and political changes can affect legal definitions of crime, sentencing lengths, and crime reporting patterns. It is simplistic to say that a state or nation has a “dangerous immigrant class” simply by looking at rates of crime or numbers of offenders arrested and incarcerated. Analyzing crime and victimization data requires researchers to dissect the data and examine it in light of criminological theory, cultural and social conditions of the crime, and the laws that define offenses and their punishments. Understanding the hidden nature of crime is also important, as some crimes are not reported to the police due to the nature of the offense or the characteristics of the victim. Fussell (2011) found, for example, that the threat of deportation may cause migrant workers who are in the United States unlawfully to forgo reporting their crime victimization and workplace abuse, and, consequently, such victimization is not accounted for in official crime statistics. The context of crime, punishment, and immigration status affects, and is affected by, localized variables. Aggregate numbers about crime, victimization, and immigration are helpful for examining patterns, but more nuanced analysis is needed to fully understand the nexus between crime and immigration.
Immigration, Social Disorganization, and Social Control.
When crime rates rise, criminologists attempt to explain them with community and neighborhood factors. Early 20th century social disorganization theory suggested that crime was the result of a criminogenic foreign-born class who experienced the effects of strain and economic deprivation. Shaw and McKay (1942) addressed the rise in crime in Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s. They posited that if urban communities experienced an increase in population, an increase of persons living in poverty, and a decrease in the community’s racial and ethnic homogeneity, then crime would increase in areas with the most social disorganization. Because cities at that time experienced increased immigrant populations, it was believed that the spike in inner-city crime was due to the presence of immigrants.
Social disorganization has continued to serve as an explanation for crime in socially diverse neighborhoods. Sampson and Raudenbush (2004) analyzed the concept of “broken windows” in order to ascertain if a community’s view (perception) of social disorder is shaped by racial bias. Utilizing four data sets for Chicago’s neighborhood blocks in the 1990s, Sampson and Raudenbush found that community residents’ and leaders’ views of their neighborhood were influenced by the community’s racial composition. They suggest that negative perceptions of neighborhoods are shaped by racial bias rather than by observations of disorder. In this regard, Latinos (a large number of whom were Mexican immigrants) in Chicago perceived their neighborhoods to have significantly more social disorder when the neighborhood was at least a 25% African American. Sampson and Raudenbush could not fully explain the finding but suggested that residents and community leaders are primed to see social disorder in areas that have both poverty and a heterogeneous racial composition; new immigrants might thereby view these neighborhoods as having more disorder than is actually occurring, due to historic perceptions about crime, race, and social disorder.
Ferraro (2016) examined the effect on crime in areas that experienced a recent increase in immigrants. Utilizing Uniform Crime Reports and census data for over 1,200 locations and 194 “new destination communities” for Latinos between 2000 and 2007, Ferraro tested the hypothesis that communities that had large increases in foreign-born persons would have greater increases in crime. By focusing on recent immigrants, Ferraro indicated that he would be able to test social disorganization for those immigrants who might experience the most “tumultuous” social changes in a city and determine if they would be responsible for crime spikes; in other words, would recent immigrants be prone to committing crime? Ferraro found mixed results in his test of social disorganization theory. While the rise in social disadvantage was positively associated with an increase in crime, changes in the immigrant population in a community were not associated with an increase in crime. Instead, places with more recent immigrants had larger decreases in property crime. Ferraro indicated that other theoretical perspectives that show that recent immigrants may be drawn to communities where they have social ties and employment prospects may mediate against social disorganization factors that presuppose criminal behavior in a community undergoing social change.
Crime Commission and Immigration
With more refined data analysis, 21st century criminologists are able to test the hypothesis that immigrants commit a large proportion of crime relative to their population in a community. To determine if foreign-born persons commit crimes in a variety of communities, Vélez and Lyons (2012) analyzed the relationship between crime and immigration in multiple U.S. cities. Vélez and Lyons (2012) used the National Neighborhood Crime survey to test whether disadvantaged neighborhoods with large numbers of immigrants have more crime because of economic deprivation or are able to abate crime if immigrants have access to social agencies that can provide social support. They studied 69 cities that had populations larger than 100,000 in 2000, and they found differences in crime patterns when municipalities were distinguished as being either a “gateway” or a “traditional” city. Gateway cities have large numbers of newly arriving immigrants who, despite the economic disadvantages in the neighborhoods where they reside, have access to more resources to help them with their transition. In gateway communities, the amount of crime did not necessarily increase or decrease within the established immigrant neighborhoods. The researchers found that the infusion of social control agents (social support) was a protective factor against immigrants’ engaging in or committing crime. They posited that, rather than destabilizing communities, immigrants can create a stabilizing force in large cities when contextualized by neighborhood.
Stansfield, Akins, Rumbaut, and Hammer (2013) considered whether increased immigration in the city had an impact on serious property crime in Austin, Texas. They posited that having a “vibrant co-ethnic” community could be a protective factor against property crime. Using Austin city tract-level analysis and the city police department’s crime records from 2004 to 2006, Stansfield et al. found no relationship between new immigration and serious property crime rates. They posited that the new arrivals might have revitalized neighborhoods by causing a bottom-up growth among Mexican immigrant commercial enterprises in the city. Thus, an increase in immigrants in the city’s tracts where high concentrations of new arrivals lived did not increase the crimes of burglary, theft, and motor vehicle theft.
Ferraro (2014) analyzed the relationship between crime and immigration between 2000 and 2010 using Uniform Crime Report data. Ferraro found that although U.S. cities experienced an increase in their populations during the 10-year period, there was a decrease in the overall crime rate and a reduction in both in violent and property crime. He found, similar to Vélez & Lyons and Stansfield et al., that crime was not associated with cities that had large immigration populations, regardless of whether there were long-established immigrant communities in the city, or if there were large foreign-born immigrant settlements formed within the previous 5 years. He suggested that the largest predictor of crime is socioeconomic disadvantage, rather than increased population or the number of immigrants living in a community.
Violent Crime and Immigration
Some people are concerned that immigrants are violent and engaged in particular types of violent crime. To address this concern, Martinez, Lee, and Nielsen (2004) studied drug and homicide crime in Miami, Florida, and San Diego, California, to determine if there is a relationship between violent crime and immigration. Although both cities have a large Hispanic and immigration population, Martinez et al. found that foreign-born persons were not responsible for the communities’ drug and violent crime. The increase in crime was associated with second-generation youth, who were more likely to be involved in homicides related to drug offending in both communities. According to the researchers, “segmented assimilation” among second-generation youth can explain criminal patterns, since Mexican American youth in poor neighborhoods, despite cultural assimilation, committed violent crimes. If, however, immigrant families had economic stability (e.g., jobs), their offspring were not likely to engage in drug-related homicides.
Martinez, Stowell, and Lee (2010) analyzed the relationship between homicide and immigration in San Diego during periods of major increases in the foreign-born population (1980–2000). They wanted to test the “immigrant paradox.” The paradox is that despite social disorganization theory’s prediction that people living in socially disorganized neighborhoods will have higher crime rates, communities with large immigrant populations have lower levels of crime. Martinez et al. posited that immigrants exhibit strong social controls (education and mental health attributes) and rejuvenate neighborhoods that had been previously considered to be high-crime inner-city communities. While the researchers found that socially disorganized neighborhoods experienced increases in homicides, they also found that, when communities had an influx of immigrants, there were fewer homicides. Their findings suggest that while certain neighborhoods foster crime, if recent immigrants settle in socially disadvantaged neighborhoods, the impact on the violent crime rate can be nullified.
Vélez (2009) studied homicide offenses in Chicago. She compared city neighborhoods that had dense populations of white, Hispanic, and African American residents and the homicide rates within these neighborhoods and found that homicide rates are significantly higher in African American neighborhoods and are closely associated with neighborhoods with a “concentrated disadvantaged” population. Neighborhoods with concentrated disadvantage are those with a large percentage of residents with incomes below the poverty line, limited employment of residents age 16 and older, many female head of household families, and high unemployment. She found that, in areas where there were large populations of recent immigrants, the number of homicides decreased. Vélez attributed this finding to the reinvigoration of neighborhoods when new immigrants arrived. She suggested that the new arrivals arguably want to strengthen ties with their neighbors, increase community organizations, and improve the local economy.
Sampson, Morenoff, and Raudenbush (2005) analyzed data for Chicago between 1995 and 2002 to determine if ethnic and racial differences in neighborhoods account for residents’ engaging in violence. They found that age, recent immigration status, and ethnicity matters when analyzing crimes of violence. Youth in all race and ethnic groups are more likely to engage in violence, and the level of violence peaks at ages 17 or 18. In addition, they found that recent immigrants engaged in less violence than their offspring; third-generation immigrants had higher levels of violence than second-generation, and second-generation immigrants had higher levels of violence than first-generation immigrants. When considering race and ethnicity, African Americans had higher levels of violence than whites, and whites had higher levels of violence than Mexican Americans, even when controlling for neighborhood composition. Neighborhoods matter: if a neighborhood had a higher level of violence prior to changed social demographics (changes in the immigrant population), then the odds that persons in the neighborhood would engage in violence were significantly higher than in other neighborhoods.
Ousey and Kubrin (2014) also looked at the relationship between homicides and immigration. They analyzed Uniform Crime Report data from 156 cities for four specific years and covering four decades (1980, 1990, 2000, and 2010). To determine if various subtypes of homicide were related to immigration status, Ousey and Kubrin distinguished among homicide offenses committed due to an argument (lovers’ triangle, money, brawls related to alcohol or drugs), drug-related offenses (narcotics buying, selling, or distribution), and gang-related offenses (youth gang and gangland killings). They presupposed that certain subtypes of homicide would be associated with immigration status (cities with a percentage of foreign-born and Hispanic residents). In general, they found that cities with increases in recent immigrants have the lowest rates of homicide. Ousey and Kubrin also found that cities with above-average immigration populations also experienced sharp decreases in all subtypes of homicide.
Generational Patterns, Immigration, and Crime
Studies on immigration and crime should also consider generational patterns of crime. The “immigrant paradox” was found to apply to juvenile immigrants. Desmond (2009), in a study using the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, analyzed whether communities with a high concentration of immigrant youth had increased violent crime levels. He found that when immigrant children are compared with their nonimmigrant peers, the immigrant youth are less violent and have better academic, social, and psychological adjustment scores. As with other researchers who considered the paradox, Desmond found that, despite perceptions to the contrary, immigrant youth have fewer deviant behaviors (fewer violent crime behaviors) than native-born persons. In particular, he found that immigrant Hispanic and Asian youth had lower levels of violence than their nonimmigrant peers. However, he also found that foreign-born black youth were more likely to engage in violence than their native-born black peers. Thus, while immigration reduces violent crime in communities with a concentration of immigrant youth, the protective effect of high immigrant populations may not apply to all immigrant groups or communities.
Sampson (2008) similarly found support for the “Latino paradox,” in that communities that had the lowest violent crime rates in the United States had the most diverse neighborhoods. He stated: “Notably, we found a significantly lower rate of violence among Mexican-Americans compared to blacks and whites . . . In particular, first-generation immigrants (those born outside the United States) were 45 percent less likely to commit violence than third-generation Americans, adjusting for individual, family, and neighborhood background” (p. 29). Sampson contended that immigrants can help promote social controls even in extremely disadvantaged neighborhoods; in this manner, immigration can cause violent crime rates to go down.
Bersani, Loughran, and Piquero (2014) studied the transitional time period from adolescence into adulthood to determine if immigrants and their offspring living in disadvantaged neighborhoods will have more risk or protective factors for crime. Using data from the Pathways to Desistance study, Bersani et al. looked at youth who were convicted of a serious crime and age 14 to 17 at baseline in two counties (Maricopa County, Arizona, and Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania). They collected data on the youths’ recidivism over 36 months to ascertain if there is a difference in immigration–crime trajectories among youth who were more assimilated than those who were less assimilated in their communities. The researchers found less reoffending among first-generation immigrants than among second-generation youth. The study found that immigration status can be a “buffer” against serious crime offending behavior, and most of the first-generation youth offenders were early or low desisters. Among second-generation immigrant youth, if they lived in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood, then the social disorganization of the place where they resided could have been a possible intervening variable that explained persistent offending behaviors regardless of race or ethnicity. Bersani et al. concluded that it is important to study how adolescent immigrants acculturate into a community, particularly if it has high crime rates and other factors associated with social disadvantage.
To understand the effect of immigration on behavior, Salas-Wright, Vaughn, Schwartz, and Córdova (2015) compared immigrant youth and U.S.-born youth to determine if they experience different “externalizing” behaviors due to moderating factors like cohesive parental relationships, positive school engagement, and negative views on drug use. Salas-Wright et al. found that, with the exception of fighting behaviors, recent immigrant youth were less likely to self-report criminal behaviors than similarly situated groups of youth born in the United States. The differences between the youth, according to Salas-Wright, can be attributed to the immigrant youth’s having more prosocial support from their parents and schools. The researchers’ finding was consistent no matter whether the immigrant youth were recent arrivals or came to the United States over 5 years before the study and as young children.
Illegal Immigration and Crime
Despite recent research that shows the lack of a direct connection between immigration and increases in crime, the American public still believes that immigrants are a dangerous group. The studies analyzed above looked at overall immigration and did not specifically address the portion of crime associated with illegal immigration. Illegal immigration occurs when a person unlawfully enters the United States or overstays their visa once in the country; it is estimated that between 30 and 50% of undocumented immigrants in the United States have overstayed their visas (Blondell, 2008; Metcalf, 2011). The perception that “all” undocumented immigrants have nefariously crossed the U.S. border is not accurate. More refined analysis regarding legal and illegal immigration and crime has been done by researchers in recent years.
Researchers in the United States have begun to distinguish between the act of being an undocumented immigrant, which is illegal, and crimes committed by immigrants. Metcalf (2011), for example, found that if an undocumented immigrant is processed by an immigration court for deportation, deportation is most likely to actually occur if the person committed a serious felony. In other cases, the individual is likely to be released and will continue to unlawfully reside in the United States. Concern about crimes committed on or near the U.S. border has also resulted in some studies about the nexus among migration, victimization, and criminal offending. Hickman and Suttorp (2015) analyzed whether undocumented immigrants were more likely to be a recidivist one year after release from jail than nondeportable immigrants. Analyzing a month of data from the Los Angeles County Jail in 2002, they found that 21% of inmates were “foreign born.” For those whose immigration status was known, and for which the inmate was not released to another agency, about 60% of the inmates were nondeportable and 40% were deportable immigrants. One year after release from the county jail, deportable immigrants were no more a threat to public safety than immigrants who were nondeportable (Hickman & Suttorp, 2015). Hickman and Suttorp concluded that the fear that undocumented immigrants are a disproportionate threat to a community’s safety is not empirically supported by analysis of data for the immigrants subjected to criminal justice sanctions at a local jail level. The re-arrest rate for all the immigrants (both deportable and nondeportable) in their study was relatively low (about 38%).
Perceptions about Immigrants and Crime
Public opinion polls indicate that the American public believes that undocumented immigrants should be deported and that the federal government should do something to stop illegal border crossing (Chiricos, Stupi, Stults & Gertz, 2014). Chiricos et al. (2014) assessed whether the perception that immigrants are a threat to the U.S. economy and culture supports social policies to control immigration. They conducted a random telephone survey in 2008 that had more than 1500 respondents. They found that interviewees who thought that illegal immigrants threatened their cultural and economic security were more likely to favor enhanced border security and internal controls on immigrants. However, when respondents lived in communities with higher numbers of Latino residents, then the perceived threats to cultural and economic security were mediated. Desmond and Kubrin (2009) argued that immigrant-concentrated communities, particularly those with high concentrations of Hispanic immigrants, have residents who can refute the idea that immigrants are dangerous as a group, and that the public needs to be better informed about the relationship between immigration and crime.
Sohoni and Sohoni (2014) analyzed the public discourse on immigration and crime. They found that public consumers of news media linked immigration to crime along three topics of public discourse: public services and resources, government responsibility, and the economy and labor market. The respondents in their study did not complain that immigrants are a criminal class; rather, they complained about the impact that immigrants had on the limited, taxpayer-supported resources in a community. The public complained that the government did not do enough to restrict services to immigrants and complained that employers were hiring them for their “cheap” labor and thereby “aiding and abetting” illegal immigration. Thus, the researchers found that the general public’s rhetoric against immigrants was not just that immigrants committed crimes, but that their illegal presence in the United States was a crime that needed to be addressed. Confounding the issue of immigration and crime, according to Sohoni and Sohoni, is that the public used the terms “Hispanics” and “illegal immigrants” interchangeably and assumed that all Hispanic immigrants had undocumented status.
Wang (2012) considered the perception that undocumented immigrants in the United States pose a criminal threat. She analyzed telephone survey data from four southwestern states (Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas) to determine if, in communities with high levels of undocumented Hispanic persons, the Hispanics were viewed as a threat by the majority population. Wang found that respondents who had a distorted view of the relative size of the undocumented immigrant population in their community perceived the undocumented immigrants to be a criminal threat. In finding that the native-born respondents manifested a “minority threat perspective,” Wang concluded that the respondents in the southwestern states were worried about two types of threats that were difficult to disentangle: the ethnic threat of Hispanics (native born or immigrants), and the undocumented immigrant threat. These perceived threats can result in proposals to enhance United States–Mexico border security.
Stupi, Chiricos, and Gerz (2016) conducted a national random telephone survey to assess whether U.S. citizens perceived immigrants to be a threat in general, or only if they want to come into the country and illegally cross the border. Stupi et al. found that the perception of the immigration threat differed along adults’ demographic characteristics. Conservative adults were more likely than liberals to perceive undocumented immigrants to be a criminal threat; persons with lower incomes and educational attainment levels were more likely to perceive immigrants as a criminal threat than those with higher levels of income or education; persons living along the border with Mexico were more likely to perceive a threat from immigrants wanting to come into the United States than those who are already residing in the nation; and the perceived imminent threat by undocumented immigrants is the strongest predictor of citizens’ wanting to have strong policy measures to secure the border. It is important not to look at just immigration and crime within the United States but to consider issues regarding the movement of peoples across borders. As Stupi et al.’s research shows, it is important to distinguish between undocumented immigrants who reside in a nation and policy recommendations based on the “desired need” of future immigrants.
State policy preferences to proscribe the status of being undocumented have become politicized. Zingher (2014) found, for example, that Republican-controlled state legislatures are significantly more likely to adopt new laws to target undocumented immigrants than Democratic-controlled state legislatures. The ability to pass immigration enforcement laws was also positively associated with Republican-controlled legislatures in states where the Republican Party was very conservative. However, the passage of such bills was unlikely to occur in Republican-controlled legislatures in states that had a large Latino population in the voting electorate; the exception to this finding was Arizona.
The Illegality of Being an Undocumented Immigrant
Immigration law violations occur when either a foreign-born person enters the United States legally but overstays his or her visa, or a foreign-born person enters surreptitiously and without a visa or legal authorization. When undocumented immigrants come to the attention of law enforcement, and if they do not voluntarily agree to deportation, their cases are heard by the U.S. court system, where caseloads in recent years have been huge. According to Metcalf (2011), in 2009, U.S. trial courts completed over 350,000 illegal alien cases. Many of the litigants were not recent arrivals; rather, they had been in the United States for an average of seven years. If the litigant sought asylum, they were most likely to have their petitions denied; between 2006 and 2009, 137,322 asylum applications were granted, while 167,599 were denied (Metcalf, 2011). Of concern to the U.S. courts is the need to ascertain if immigrants are foreign-born persons who are terrorists and entered the United States fraudulently. Metcalf found that between 1993 and 2004, every one of the 94 foreign-born persons involved in actual attacks on U.S. soil had committed an immigration law violation: 34 made a false statement to enter the United States, 18 of the 94 entered on student visas, another four were approved to study in the United States, 17 had improper travel documents, and 13 overstayed their visas. Immigration courts are unable to enforce removal decisions; the only agency that can arrest, detain, and remove illegal immigrants is the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE was formed after passage of the Homeland Security Act in 2003 to provide enforcement of immigration laws, to investigate illegal trafficking of people and goods, and to prevent terrorism.3
Katz, Fox, and White (2011) analyzed the relationship between immigration status and drug use in Maricopa County, Arizona. In their study, 12% of the recently jailed arrestees were illegal immigrants, 4% were legal immigrants, and the remainder were U.S. citizens. The majority of legal and illegal immigrants were Hispanic males, while U.S. citizens were mainly white (45%) males. Katz et al. also found that the illegal immigrant arrestees in their study were significantly more likely than the other groups of arrestees to be married, employed, and not involved in violence at the time of their arrest; they were also unlikely to receive income from illegal activity and they had fewer prior arrests than the legal immigrants and U.S. citizens. Additionally, there was a significant relationship between immigration status and drug and alcohol use across time (past 3 days, past 30 days, or past year) and across measures (self-report and urinalysis). They specifically found that legal immigrants and U.S. citizens were significantly more likely to “self-report and test positive for marijuana, crack cocaine, opiates, methamphetamine, and any illicit drug” than illegal immigrants (p. 555); illegal immigrants were significantly more likely to test positive for powder cocaine than legal immigrants and U.S. citizens. In addition, U.S. citizens were more likely to report drug use than both legal and illegal immigrants. Thus, despite the “conventional wisdom” that illegal immigrants are involved with drugs, Katz et al. did not find this to be the case. By distinguishing between legal and illegal immigrants, the researchers were able to dispel some stereotypes about illegal immigrants but indicated that more analysis on the context of the arrest and how the police respond to arresting illegal immigrants needed to be done. Because Katz et al. studied arrestees who were booked into the local county jail who self-reported their immigration status, the findings should not be generalized to all arrestees or to other communities in the United States.
To analyze whether illegal immigrants commit a large number of crimes that require police attention, Koper, Guterbock, Woods, Taylor, and Carter (2013) analyzed how law enforcement in one Virginia county was affected when the police enforced illegal immigration laws. Koper et al. asserted that, although research shows that immigrants do not commit as many crimes as do native-born persons, if the numbers of illegal immigrants increases, then there will be numerically more crime committed by this population of persons. The researchers found that policy changes implemented by the police led to an increase in the number of illegal immigrants who were charged with misdemeanor crimes. Although increased arrests and deportations might reasonably be expected to result in a decrease in the overall crime rate, Koper et al. found a reduction only in aggravated assault crimes in the county studied. The researchers speculated that the one county saw a reduced aggravated assault crime rate because the police announced that they were going to enforce arrests of illegal immigrants who committed crimes. The researchers thought that illegal immigrants did not wish to come to the attention of the police and consequently did not report the assault victimization.
Crime Victimization and Immigration
Research has shown that immigrants may be less likely to report victimization to the police in the United States for a variety of reasons: language barriers, fear of the police, and fear of deportation (Gutierrez & Kirk, 2015). Gutierrez and Kirk (2015) examined whether American communities with large immigrant populations had differences in crime victimization reporting patterns. Using National Crime Victimization Survey data, they found that increased foreign-born and noncitizen populations in the cities studied did not impact the reporting of property crime. Interestingly, when foreign-born resident populations were stable, the probability that violent crime would be reported to the police was over 50%. However, if a city experienced rapid growth in the foreign-born population, then the probability of reporting a crime of violence decreased by about 15%. Gutierrez and Kirk posited that the decrease in reporting might have been due to a “lack of services, cultural sensitivity, and overall infrastructure to accommodate the relationships between legal authorities and immigrant groups . . . which might otherwise promote police notification” (p. 19). Overall, an increase in immigrant and noncitizen residents in a city was found to be significantly related to a decreased likelihood of reporting violent crime to the police.
Immigration, Interpersonal Violence, and Gender Victimization
The gender of immigrants may also play a factor in whether victims of crime will report it to the police. Pitts (2014) found that Latina immigrants who experienced interpersonal violence (physical, verbal, and sexual) committed by a partner or intimate were more likely to find help from a community agency to deal with the abuse than to call the police. The most significant situational factors that led women to report the victimization to the police included access to transportation and the presence of an eyewitness who saw the abuse. Pitts also found that the most significant demographic characteristics of women who reported abuse to the police were education and age; older and more educated women called the police. In addition, whether the woman reported the abuse was not dependent on her ability to speak English or if she was legally married to the offender. Pitts concluded that the reasons that Latina women do not report a crime of domestic violence to the police are based in both situational and demographic factors that distinguish Latina immigrant victims from other female victims of interpersonal violence.
Reina, Lohman, and Maldonado (2014) also found that Latina victims of domestic violence do not seek help or report their victimization to the police. These researchers found that cultural understandings about domestic violence and feelings of shame were barriers to women seeking assistance; the lack of English language proficiency did not prevent women from finding help because materials were available to them in Spanish at advocacy centers. Overall, Reina et al. found that undocumented status was a major factor that affected the victims’ decision to seek help. The researchers found that the women’s abusers intimidate the women by using the threat of deportation as a method of control and power. The Latinas in the study were afraid of leaving their abusers and exhibited other characteristics associated with battered women (shame, guilt, feelings of love for the abuser, fear of further abuse if they attempt to leave). The lack of “culturally competent” services among service providers and within the police meant that undocumented Latina abuse victims did not know or understand how to seek help.
Using a 2008 Pew Hispanic Center survey of a disproportionately stratified national sample of Latino/Latina adults, Messing, Becerra, Ward-Lasher, and Androff (2015) sought to find out what Latinas thought about the police and if they were afraid of deportation. Messing et al. found that if the fear of deportation increased, then the female respondents were also more likely to be afraid that the police would use excessive force on arrestees. In addition, as fear of deportation among the Latina respondents increased, then the women also said that they would definitely not report crime victimization to the police. Latinas who became U.S. citizens also indicated that they were not very likely to report serious crime victimization to the police. However, Latinas who were older and more educated indicated a willingness to report violent crime victimization. Messing et al. concluded that fear of deportation and concern about unfair treatment by the criminal justice system impede Latinas from reporting violent crime victimization. If women believed that the police would not use excessive force, then their willingness to report violent crime increased. Latinas are concerned with unfair treatment by the criminal justice system because they worry about immigration detention and deportation, unlawful imprisonment of immigrants who have an immigration detainer placed on them, and other concerns for their safety. Such concerns, according to Messing et al., are expressed not only by undocumented immigrants but also by those who became U.S. citizens. The Latinas with legal status allowing them to be in the United States may be protecting other family members who are undocumented.
While research shows that recent immigrants are less likely to commit crime even in neighborhoods that are considered to be socially disadvantaged, Wright and Benson (2010) wondered whether the “immigrant paradox” also extended to intimate partner violence. Using 343 neighborhood tract data from the Project on Human Development in Chicago, U.S. Census data, and community surveys, the researchers found that social disorganization theory, by itself, cannot explain intimate partner violence crimes. In communities with high levels of immigrant populations, there were lower levels of intimate partner violence. They found that when families and neighbors do not view family violence as a private matter, then the neighborhoods experience lower rates of intimate partner violence. Wright and Benson averred that cultural norms about family violence can mitigate against it. Thus, family violence entails a crime that has individual, cultural, and neighborhood characteristics that should be taken into account.
Undocumented immigrants who are working in the United States may experience victimization by both employers who exploit them and by street offenders who assume, perhaps correctly, that the immigrant will not report the victimization to the police for fear that he or she will be deported. In the United States, the deportation of illegal immigrants has been increasing since the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IRIRA). The IRIRA, together with the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), strengthened the ability of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to arrest and deport undocumented immigrants (Fussell, 2011). Gleeson (2010) reported that for every 19 civilian workers in the United States, one was undocumented, with more than 8 million undocumented immigrants working in particular labor-sector positions, such as construction, food service, and janitorial work. In her study of two cities (Houston, Texas, and San Jose, California), Gleeson found that illegal status intensifies workplace abuses. Gleeson noted that employers may prefer immigrant workers for specific trades if the workers are uneducated, do not have English language skills, and if there is volatility in the economic market. Immigrant workers experienced violations like “paycheck irregularities, wage and hour abuse, and lack of access to safety equipment” (pp. 569). Despite the undocumented immigrants’ knowledge of workplace laws that would protect them, the majority of the respondents Gleeson interviewed did not want to pursue their claims. The respondents wanted to earn money, were afraid of retribution if they spoke out, were afraid of being found out as an undocumented worker, and were afraid of losing their jobs even if they were not undocumented. The workers merely wanted to keep a low profile despite their vulnerability. Undocumented Mexican immigrants ultimately thought about going back to Mexico when they retired; they did not focus on what legalization could mean for their employment stability, they only wanted immediate work to support themselves and their family.
Fussell’s (2011) study of undocumented Latino migrant workers found that their situational and demographic characteristics exposed them to crime victimization. Many of the workers in her study were recent migrants to the United States who sought work; in seeking to maximize the money that they earned as undocumented laborers and to minimize the amount of money that they spent on living so that they could remit money to their families in Latin and South America, the men worked hard, but their low pay and lack of ties to the community in which they lived set them up for both labor and crime victimization. The victimizations that the undocumented migrants self-reported included wage theft (41%), worksite abuse by employers (22%), robbery (10%), and assault (9%). Fussell found that male day laborers were more likely to experience wage theft and worksite abuse than other Latino workers, and that all groups of Latino migrants were vulnerable to crime victimization, such as robbery and assault.
Crime Studies Along the U.S. Border
Along the United States–Mexico border, thousands of migrants from Central and South America are kidnapped, extorted, and physically abused by Mexican gangs who profit from their exploitation. Grimes, Golob, Durcikova, and Nunamaker (2013), in their study of undocumented Mexican immigrants detained by the U.S. Border Patrol in Tucson, Arizona, found that the detainees paid persons to help them cross the border. The undocumented detainees in the study were picked up by Border Patrol in Arizona as they attempted the journey into the United States. The interviewees said that for help with the crossing, they paid the Mexican cartels about $150 and that the total that they paid either a coyote (person who sets up the border crossing but does not enter the United States) or a guide (who travels with the undocumented immigrant) was about $2,350. It is estimated that Mexican cartels may garner up to $250 million annually by ransoming migrants, demanding about $5,000 for each person held; male migrants are at risk of being physically hurt if they fail to pay, female migrants are also at risk of being raped (Stargardter & Gardner, 2014).
Militarization of the U.S. border has been a primary method used by the U.S. government to deal with the conflict and instability in Mexico and Latin America that drives millions of poor persons to attempt to cross the border each year (Aguirre & Simmers, 2008/2009; Border Network for Human Rights, 2008). A 2006 task force that was formed to study the impact of U.S. militarization along the United States–Mexico border found that, rather than reduce harm to undocumented immigrants, the United States’s immigration and drug trafficking policies may contribute to dangers faced by undocumented immigrants. According to the Border Network for Human Rights (2008), undocumented immigrants may resort to entering the United States through more dangerous routes and during times when weather conditions are too extreme; they report that over 4,000 migrants have died crossing the United States–Mexico border since 1994. Grimes et al. (2013) found that more than half of the detainees they interviewed did not understand how to enter the United States legally. They entered the United States primarily to find work (65%), to work because they had a job (51%), and to reunite with family who were already in the United States (24%).
Concern about Refugees
Since 1975, over 3 million refugees have come to the United States from all over the world (U.S. State Department, 2015), and the United States admitted 84,995 refugees in 2016 (U.S. Department of State, 2017). Many refugees want to start a new life in the United States and other Western nations to escape from the ordeals that they experience in their homelands: torture, war, and persecutions due to their race, ethnicity, religion, and political orientation. Instability in North Africa and the Middle East further drove forced migrations of people into harm’s way as unscrupulous traffickers warehoused, harmed, and tortured migrants without concern that they would be stopped (Anderson, 2016). Anderson (2016) found that increased border security does not abate refugee migration or solve the problems associated with massive forced migrations of people; refugees are willing to take the risks associated with migration rather than stay in dangerous homelands (e.g., Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, and Syria). According to Anderson, nations need to focus on addressing the economic and political situations in the distressed nations to stop the poor from risking their lives by migration, rather than continuing to deal with the human crisis through enhanced, but failed, border security measures. If the conflict is not abated, then more refugees will seek asylum and will experience victimization during their migration.
Conclusions on Immigration and Crime in the United States
Researchers in the United States have pointed out that the urban crime problem is not generated by immigrants, legal or undocumented, and that immigrants are not increasing crime rates. Socially disadvantaged neighborhoods may, however, make immigrant groups more susceptible to crime victimization when social support networks do not exist or are lacking. Despite the research findings on crime and immigration, the U.S. public mistakenly believes foreign-born immigrants to be dangerous criminals. To respond to undocumented immigration and the public fear of crime, anti-immigration laws enacted in the early 21st century attempt to hasten the deportation processes for undocumented immigrants. Such laws have increased the workload in the U.S. courts and consequently deportation is likely when the undocumented immigrant has committed a serious violent crime or agrees to removal. Immigration laws and policies should consider the unintended consequences of crime victimization on undocumented immigrants and the global conditions that cause mass migrations of people across dangerous borders.
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(1.) U.S. Census Bureau. (2015). U.S. and world population clock. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/popclock/?cssp=SERP. China and India have populations of over 1.367 million and 1.251 million people, respectively; the world population is over 7 billion people.
(2.) Migration Policy Institute (2015). Some of the most sought-after current and historical U.S. immigration statistics are published in useful compilation by MPI’s online journal. Retrieved from http://www.migrationpolicy.org/news/some-most-sought-after-current-and-historical-us-immigration-statistics-published-useful.
(3.) A very good summary of U.S. immigration laws, court cases and policy decisions is: provided in Migration Policy Institute. (March 2013). Key Immigration Laws and Policy Developments since 1986. Migration Policy Institute, Washington D.C.