A new immigration study directly contradicts immigration opponents in the USA. The study by Stanford University researchers found evidence that immigrants haven’t contributed to increased crime rates in the US over the past 140 years. In fact, first-generation immigrants haven’t shown a higher likelihood of imprisonment compared to individuals born in the US at all.
The researchers found that immigrants today are 30% less likely to be imprisoned than white US-born individuals. Furthermore, when taking into account black Americans, whose imprisonment rates tend to be higher than the general population, the likelihood of an immigrant being incarcerated is 60% lower compared to those born in the US.
While previous research has also debunked the claim that immigration leads to more crime, this new study gives the most extensive evidence to date of the relationship between immigration and crime across the US and over time. The researchers used Census Bureau data and focused on immigrants between the ages of 18 and 40, finding that nationwide, the idea that immigrants bring crime is unwarranted.
“From Henry Cabot Lodge in the late 19th century to Donald Trump, anti-immigration politicians have repeatedly tried to link immigrants to crime, but our research confirms that this is a myth and not based on fact,” Ran Abramitzky, one of the researchers and author of a which focused on immigration, said in a university statement.
Immigration and crime rates
Before 1870, immigrants as a whole had higher incarceration rates than their US-born counterparts, based on census data. Between 1880 and 1950, both groups exhibited similar incarceration rates. However, since 1960, immigrants have been less likely to be incarcerated than US-born individuals.
This trend is consistent across almost all major regions in the world that serve as significant sources of immigrants to the United States. As of 2019, immigrants from China and eastern and southern Europe registered the lowest number of crimes committed relative to US-born individuals, as indicated by their lower incarceration rates.
The only exception is Mexican and Central American immigrants. However, the higher incarceration rates since 2005 can be linked to the fact that census data combines incarcerations for criminal acts with detentions for immigration offenses. Incarceration rates in this group were similar to US-born individuals between 1980 and 2005.
Additionally, when comparing the imprisonment rates of Mexican and Central American immigrants to those of white males born in the US, with a focus on education, a distinct narrative emerges. Men without a high school degree are the group most prone to incarceration for criminal activity, the researchers found
“But Mexican and Central American immigrants with low levels of education, which comprise a large share of immigrants from this region, are significantly less likely to be incarcerated than U.S.-born men with similarly low levels of education,” Abramitzky, who wrote this study alongside a team of US researchers, said in a media statement,
Reviewing the results
When analyzing their findings, the researchers conceded that it's not entirely clear why the data shows that immigrants have been imprisoned at lower rates than US-born males since 1960. They tried several plausible explanations, but age, marital status, and education, for example, didn’t provide a clue about this. It's possible that whatever is causing this trend isn't actually included in the data.
It’s also unlikely that changes in immigration policy or deportations contributed to lower rates of immigrant incarcerations, the researchers said. Instead, they argue the likely explanation is that first-generation immigrants are acting more lawfully overall than US-born men, especially compared to those who don’t have a high school diploma.
White males born in the US are more likely to be unemployed, unmarried and in poor health, and perhaps more likely to commit crimes as a result, the researchers said. In comparison, the manual jobs typically taken by immigrants have been more stable. Previous studies have also found immigrants to be more adaptable and resilient.
“Recent waves of immigrants are more likely to be employed, married with children, and in good health,” Abramitzky said. “Far from the rapists and drug dealers that anti-immigrant politicians claim them to be, immigrants today are doing relatively well and have largely been shielded from the social and economic forces that have negatively affected low-educated U.S.-born men.”
The study was published in the National Bureau of Economic Research.