What You Need to Know About Immigration and Crime

Scientific Research Disproves Racist Stereotype of Criminal Immigrants

A police offer writes a traffic ticket for a man pulled over during a traffic stop. Many believe that immigrants cause crime.
Trooper David Casillas, from the Florida Highway Patrol, talks to a driver at a DUI checkpoint December 15, 2006 in Miami, Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Often when a case is made for lowering or halting immigration to the U.S. or other Western nations, a key part of the argument is that allowing in immigrants allows in criminals. This idea has been widely circulated among political leaders and candidates, news outlets and media pundits, and members of the public for many years. It gained more traction and prominence in the midst of the Syrian refugee crisis of 2015 and continued as a point of contention during the U.S. Presidential Election cycle of 2016.

Many wonder if it is really true that immigration brings crime, and is thus a threat to the homeland's population. It turns out there is ample scientific evidence that this is not the case. In fact, scientific research shows that immigrants commit less crime than the native-born population in the U.S. This is a longterm trend that continues today, and with this evidence, we can put this dangerous and harmful stereotype to rest.

What The Research Says About Immigrants and Crime

Sociologists Daniel Martínez and Rubén Rumbaut, along with Senior Researcher at the American Immigration Council, Dr. Walter Ewing, published a comprehensive study in 2015 that disproves the popular stereotype of immigrants as criminals. Among the results reported in "The Criminalization of Immigration in the United States" is the fact that the national rates of violent and property crimes actually plummeted between 1990 and 2013, when the nation experienced a surge in immigration. According to FBI data, the rate of violent crime declined by 48 percent, and that for property crime fell by 41 percent. In fact, another sociologist, Robert J. Sampson reported in 2008 that cities with the highest concentrations of immigrants are actually among the safest places in the U.S. (See Sampson's article, "Rethinking Crime and Immigration" in the Winter 2008 edition of  Contexts.)

They also report that the rate of incarceration for immigrants is far lower than that for the native-born population, and this true for both legal and unauthorized immigrants, and holds true regardless of the immigrant's country of origin or level of education. The authors found that native-born males ages 18‒39 are actually more than twice as likely as immigrants to be incarcerated (3.3 percent of native-born males versus 1.6 percent of immigrant males).

Some might wonder if deportation of immigrants who commit crimes might have an effect on the low rate of immigrant incarceration, but as it turns out, economists Kristin Butcher and Anne Morrison Piehl found through a comprehensive, longitudinal 2005 study that this is not the case. The rate of incarceration among immigrants was lower than that of native-born citizens as far back as 1980, and the gap between the two has actually widened in subsequent decades, according to Census data.

So why do immigrants commit less crimes than the native-born population? It likely has to do with the fact that emigrating is a huge risk to take, and so those who do so tend to "work hard, defer gratifications, and stay out of trouble" so that the risk will pay off, as suggests Michael Tonry, a law professor and public policy expert. Further, Sampson's research shows that immigrant communities tend to be safer than others because they have strong degrees of social cohesion, and their members are willing "to intervene on behalf of the common good."

These findings raise serious questions about the harsh immigration policies enacted in the U.S. and other Western nations in recent years and call into question the validity of practices like detaining and incarcerating unauthorized immigrants, which presume criminal behavior or the potential for it.

Scientific research clearly shows that immigrants are not a criminal threat. It's time to throw out this xenophobic and racist stereotype that causes undue harm and distress to immigrants and their families.