Saturday, December 09, 2006

Immigration and crime

It seems obvious that new immigrants -- and especially illegal immigrants -- bring with them various short-term ills, including increased crime. There's nothing particularly surprising about that belief; crime is often correlated to poverty and limited opportunity, and new immigrants tend to be poor and face barriers of language and culture that can make social mobility difficult.

One problem though; the popular belief appears to be untrue. As immigration has skyrocketed, crime has fallen.

Ramiro Martinez Jr., a professor of criminal justice at Florida International University, has sifted through homicide records in border cities like San Diego and El Paso, both heavily populated by Mexican immigrants, both places where violent crime has fallen significantly in recent years. “Almost without exception,” he told me, “I’ve discovered that the homicide rate for Hispanics was lower than for other groups, even though their poverty rate was very high, if not the highest, in these metropolitan areas.” He found the same thing in the Haitian neighborhoods of Miami. In his book “New York Murder Mystery,” the criminologist Andrew Karmen examined the trend in New York City and likewise found that the “disproportionately youthful, male and poor immigrants” who arrived during the 1980s and 1990s “were surprisingly law-abiding” and that their settlement into once-decaying neighborhoods helped “put a brake on spiraling crime rates.”

The article quotes other researchers who found similar things. And even David Brooks has noted that as illegal immigration surged in the 1990s, the violent crime rate fell by 57 percent.

There are plenty of alternative explanations for doubters. Perhaps the effect of immigrants was simply overwhelmed by other factors, like the booming economy. One such critic also notes that illegals are less likely to report crime, thus masking the true crime rate in immigrant neighborhoods.

But that doesn't truly explain experiences like this:

In June, Sampson and I drove out to a neighborhood in Little Village, Chicago’s largest Hispanic community. The area we visited is decidedly poor: in terms of per capita income, 84 percent of Chicago neighborhoods are better off and 99 percent have a greater proportion of residents with a high-school education. As we made our way down a side street, Sampson noted that many of the residents make their living as domestic workers and in other low-wage occupations, often paid off the books because they are undocumented. In places of such concentrated disadvantage, a certain level of violence and social disorder is assumed to be inevitable.

As we strolled around, Sampson paused on occasion to make a mental note of potential trouble signs: an alley strewn with garbage nobody had bothered to pick up; a sign in Spanish in several windows, complaining about the lack of a park in the vicinity where children can play. Yet for all of this, the neighborhood was strikingly quiet. And, according to the data Sampson has collected, it is surprisingly safe. The burglary rate in the neighborhood is in the bottom fifth of the city. The overall crime rate is nearly in the bottom third.

Sampson's theory is that many Mexican immigrant communities are tight-knit, with neighbors watching out for neighbors. He also notes that Mexican immigrants are more likely to be married than either blacks or whites. In short, they're more socially conservative, even if they are here illegally.

Two more interesting things researchers have found. One, second-generation immigrants are substantially more likely to commit crimes than their parents; and third-generation immigrants are even more likely still. So the more Americanized they become, the more criminally inclined they become.

Second, one reason why immigrant neighborhoods are linked to crime in the public eye:

The experiment drew on interviews with more than 3,500 Chicago residents, each of whom was asked how serious problems like loitering and public drinking were where they lived. The responses were compared with the actual level of chaos in the neighborhood, culled from police data and by having researchers drive along hundreds of blocks to document every sign of decay and disorder they could spot.

The social and ethnic composition of a neighborhood turned out to have a profound bearing on how residents of Chicago perceived it, irrespective of the actual conditions on the streets. “In particular,” Sampson and Raudenbush found, “the proportion of blacks and the proportion of Latinos in a neighborhood were related positively and significantly to perceived disorder.” Once you adjusted for the ethnic, racial and class composition of a community, “much of the variation in levels of disorder that appeared to be explained by what residents saw was spurious.”

In other words, the fact that people think neighborhoods with large concentrations of brown-skinned immigrants are unsafe makes sense in light of popular stereotypes and subliminal associations. But that doesn’t mean there is any rational basis for their fears.

When something is this counterintuitive, I'm reluctant to accept it at face value. But it's something to consider, at any rate.

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Blogger Not Your Mama said...

My "evidence" would be anecdotal but it's no surprise to me, I've lived in both mainly Hispanic-
American and "illegal immigrant" neighbourhoods at one time or another.

If you were here illegally and did not want to be deported...would you rob my house?

If you are a citizen and so are your parents but for whatever reason, race, ability, or just bad luck or lack of opportunity, you are still living in a barrio would you rob my house?

It's a no-brainer. We really over-think this stuff sometimes :).

12/10/2006 2:53 PM  
Anonymous vkaryl said...

Conversely, there's one municipality in the SLC metroplex which has not only a disproportionate amount of crime due to gangs and drugs, but the largest proportion of those arrested for those and other crimes is minority, including a very large ratio of illegal aliens.

12/11/2006 5:09 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

I imagine there is wide local variation in behavior. Which leads to two separate questions: What is the overall effect, and what drives the differing local experiences?

12/13/2006 3:38 PM  

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