Unfounded fears of immigrants should not be driving policy, the researchers conclude.
It's easy to pick on immigrants. Politicians (at least some of them) like to use rhetoric focused on immigrants to spread fear, polarize society, and gain more votes from it. We've seen this as a key point in Trump's election, in the UK's Brexit woes, all across the EU, and in many more parts of the world.
Much of this fear comes from the idea that immigrants raise crime rates. However, the science is pretty clear on this: immigrants (in the US) have much lower incarceration rates than the native-born -- about 5 times lower. This has been backed by numerous studies which all reported pretty much the same thing. In Europe, the situation is more complex, but research has found even large immigrant waves produced no changes in violent crime rates.
However, to completely put an end to this debate for the US, there was one part that still needed to be studied: recidivism. If immigrants were indeed more likely to be repeat offenders, it could help justify some of the fears associated with them -- but this is not the case.
The new study compared recidivism rates of foreign-born and native-born individuals formerly incarcerated for felonies in Florida. In total, the recidivism rates of 192,556 immigrants and nonimmigrants formerly incarcerated for felonies and released from Florida prisons between 2004 and 2011 were analyzed. The study found pretty much what you'd expect: recidivism rates for immigrants are lower than for US natives.
In total, 32% of nonimmigrants were reconvicted of a felony offence within three years of release, compared to only 19% of immigrants. Researchers took into account other aspects which might account for this difference, such as age, ethnicity, and type of crime. They also considered participants' prior violations while under supervision, the number of times they were committed to prison, whether they were educated or not, and whether they were married or not.
Yet no matter how you look at the data, there was no reason to believe that immigrants were more dangerous to society.
This is particularly important because attitudes about immigration are increasingly important in directing policy, researchers say.
"In concluding that immigrants reoffend at a lower rate than their nonimmigrant peers, our study continues to dispel the myth of the criminal immigrant," explains Marin R. Wenger, assistant professor in the College of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida State University, who co-authored the study. "Our findings suggest that policymakers and others should ignore the heated rhetoric directed toward foreign-born individuals and, in a time of limited resources, focus on groups for which reducing recidivism would translate into safer communities rather than focusing on immigrants."
It's not a new phenomenon either. The perception of immigrants (and in particular, the fear of increasing crime rates) led to policy reform in the 1990s that increased punishments for alien citizens -- even as their incarcerations rates were lower.
Researchers urge people to not fall victim to the same approach -- it's counterproductive and doesn't do anyone any good.
"Given the current political and social climate and the demand among some legislators for more exclusionary immigration policies, our study is important because it shows that immigrant ex-inmates pose a smaller risk to the community than nonimmigrant ex-inmates," says Javier Ramos, a doctoral candidate at Florida State University, who co-authored the study.
It is possible that the immigrant recidivism rates for Florida are not representative for the entire country, but there are no substantial reasons to believe that this is the case.
Journal Reference: Justice Quarterly. Immigration and Recidivism: What Is the Link? by Ramos, J (Florida State University), and Wenger, MR (Florida State University).