Are Immigrants More Likely to Commit Crimes?

By ·February 14, 2017
Batten School, University of Virginia

The Issue:

One concern about immigration is whether immigrants are more prone to commit crimes than the native born population. This concern is not unique to the United States; it has affected policy in Europe, as a flood of immigrants has fled turmoil and war in the Middle East. But in the U.S. the issue took center stage during the presidential campaign when candidate Trump claimed that many Mexican immigrants are criminals, drug dealers, and rapists. President Trump has followed up on this position with an executive order calling on the Department of Homeland Security to publish a weekly list of crimes committed by "aliens." And, in recent days, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has conducted raids across the country, purportedly targeting immigrants who “pose a threat to public safety.”
There is no empirical evidence that immigration increases crime in the United States.

The Facts:

  • One measure of how likely a particular group is to commit crimes is to look at what share of that population ends up in prison. Recent immigrants are far less likely to be incarcerated than their native-born peers, according to United States Census data (see chart). In 2010, 1.9 percent of immigrant men ages 18-40 were incarcerated compared to 3.2 percent of native-born males the same age. This does not appear to be due to the deportation of immigrants who commit crimes, but the result of an actual difference in criminal behavior (see this research paper for analysis).
  • Studies using different data sources and approaches have also concluded that immigrants are generally less likely to commit crimes, and that – as a result – changes in immigration rates have little or no effect on public safety. Data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth show that youth born abroad are less likely than youth born in the United States to be criminally active.  A recent study that looks at flows of immigrants from Mexico concludes that Mexican immigration has no effect on violent or property crime in the United States. Research on immigration to the United Kingdom shows that waves of immigrants to that country had no effect on violent crime, although property crime increased slightly with an increase in asylum seekers, who largely came from the Middle East, and decreased with increased immigration from the European Union’s newest member countries in eastern Europe.
  • One reason people might associate immigrants with crime is that they tend to have characteristics that generally result in lower employment opportunities, which is linked to higher incidence of crime in the general population. Immigrants face cultural and language barriers that are greater than those typically confronting native-born Americans. Many also have less education and more limited social networks that can help connect them with jobs. For these reasons, many immigrants face a more challenging employment situation than the native born. This might be expected to result in higher rates of crime, especially economically-motivated crimes such as theft or drug sales. However, as shown in the chart, there is consistently over time a lower share of immigrants who are incarcerated as compared to the native born.
  • Lower immigrant incarceration rates may reflect the federal government screening out potential immigrants who are more likely to be engaged in criminal activity. But it is not just federal government selection that is at play here, but self-selection as well. Those who immigrate are motivated enough to sever ties to a homeland in the search for a better life for themselves and their families. Furthermore, the costs of getting caught committing a crime are higher for immigrants, who could face deportation, than for the native born.
  • A recent effort to link local law enforcement with federal immigration authorities to increase the detection of immigrants who commit crimes appears to have had no effect on crime rates. The "Secure Communities" program, which was launched in 2008, enabled the automatic transmission of fingerprints from arrestees to the Department of Homeland Security to verify their immigration status. Before this program, checking the immigration status of people arrested for crimes usually required the presence of a federal officer in a local jail. In its first four years, Secure Communities led to the detention of over 250,000 immigrants and ultimate deportation of 200,000. However, a study that compared counties where the program was implemented with those that had yet to roll it out, found that the program had no meaningful reduction in the rates of violent crime –homicide, rape, robbery or aggravated assault—or in the overall crime rate.

What this Means:

There is no empirical evidence that immigration increases crime in the United States; indeed, the rate of incarceration of immigrants is consistently lower than that of the native born of similar ages. Policies that enable immigrants access to legal jobs could lead to even lower rates of crime. In Italy, legalization of immigrants – which allowed them to obtain legal employment – reduced their criminal activity. Conversely, United States policies that limited immigrants’ ability to work increased their rate of economically-motivated crime (such as drug offenses). Crime rates can also be affected if local police are tasked with enforcing immigration law since that that takes them away from other investigations and actions and, furthermore, could make immigrants in their community more hesitant to report crime, assist in investigations, and come forward as witnesses. Thus, police officers may find it more difficult to keep their communities safe when they, rather than federal immigration authorities, are required to enforce immigration laws.


Crime / Crime and Criminal Justice / Immigration
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