By LEO J. PIERSON
Due to Arizona's new draconian laws, I have had to have this discussion with many people recently. It is the case that native born citizens often believe that immigrants bring crime (especially violent crime) with them to their host communities. It's what many of us immigration researchers refer to as the holy trinity of anti-immigrant sentiments: Drugs, Litter and Violent Crime.
One excellent example of this is in the film 9500 Liberty, where one native born woman claims that her 83 year old grandmother no longer feels safe enough to take her trash out at night because of the presence of a newly arrived (and presumably violent) Latino immigrant population. Taken from my own research, I captured the following quote during a brilliant interview with a native born resident living in a new immigrant destination: "The ethnic groups that are living here have changed. The crime rate is high now versus even 5 years ago. I would feel comfortable when my children were small. Not any more!" (actual crime rate decreased in interviewee's community over the cited time period).
For the reasons that are highlighted in such public discourses, this is an excellent discussion for us to be having in more public settings. Put in the form of a question, one asks: is it true that increased rates of in-migration bring increased rates of crime—especially violent crime?
Based on commonly held beliefs, the answer is not what most would expect it to be and thus requires a bit of explanation.
While it is true that larger urban areas—which are the principal destinations for most newly arriving immigrants—have higher crime rates than the average small town in Ohio, when we look at the numbers over time, what we find is that of all the variables that lead to this "social fact," there is no (as in 0) correlation—i.e. relationship—between increases in violent crime rates and increases in patterns of in-migration.
In fact, recent research suggests a causal inverse relationship between the two—that is to say, over the course of time, increased rates of in-migration partially explain observed decreases in rates of violent crime!
A just released study* by Tim Wadsworth, a sociologist at the University of Colorado, shows that between the years 1990 and 2000, the U.S. urban areas that experienced the largest rates of in-migration also experienced either significantly decreased rates of violent crime or significantly smaller increases when compared to similar urban areas that experienced lower rates of in-migration. These findings might begin to help us understand why many law officials in Arizona have flatly contradicted Arizona politicians by stating that there is no "crime wave" on our side of the border. In fact, when we look at the numbers, Arizona's violent crime rates (including the border zones) have declined significantly over the past decade, even as their rates of net in-migration have gone up!
There are various explanations given in the research literature on immigration to suggest why this might be the case (While Wadsworth's research could not test the theories, it does lend them plausibility). One oft-given reason is that—contrary to popular belief—the choice to immigrate to the U.S. is not an individual decision. Rather, the decision to leave one's home for a new destination of opportunity is one that is made collectively. Decision making involves both immediate and extended family members, as well as friends and "community elders."**
The idea is that if home societies are deliberating on who to send to a new country in order to find work and new opportunities, those who are sent are not hardened criminals; they are trusted members of their home communities. Indeed my own research—though tangential to this particular topic—does directly imply the validity of such an argument.
So to the question: are immigrants also most often violent criminals? As many advocates and academics have long suspected, the answer is NO, and now we have the data to prove it.*** In actual fact, negative stereotypes rooted in false ideas of criminality serve to further stigmatize already economically, racially, and culturally marginalized immigrant communities.
The outstanding thing about Wadsworth's data analysis is that it indicates one other important point. Not only is it the case that immigrants do not contribute to increased rates of violent crime, but it seems also to be the case that immigrants positively contribute to decreasing violent crime in the communities in which they—quite literally—settle.****
About the Author: Leo Pierson is a sociologist and instructor at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. His research focuses on local and state level immigration policy, and immigration conflict in the U.S. Leo is also the Ohio State Director of Civil Rights for the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).
*Wadsworth, Tim. June 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. Vol 91 (2): 531-53.
**For interesting discussions on immigrant decision making processes see Peggy Levitt's work on The Transnational Villages. See also Saskia Sassen's insights in Chapter 6 of Territory, Authority, Rights.
***"Computing estimates based on the pooled cross-sectional time-series models discussed above suggests that, controlling for a variety of other factors, growth in the new immigrant population was responsible, on average, for 9.3 percent of the decline in logged homicide rates, and that growth in total immigration was, on average, responsible for 22.2 percent of the decrease in logged robbery rates." (see p. 549 of above cited article by Wadsworth.)
****Special thanks is owed to Tim Wadsworth, of the University of Colorado, for directly providing me with his journal article, which I heavily leaned upon in order to write this post. In the concluding remarks of his article, Tim asks that his and other such research "play an important role in challenging the public discourse as we begin to shape new immigration policy for the 21st century." It is the sincere hope of OAC that in the "strong and slow boring of hard boards," we might begin to help accomplish precisely this task.