More Immigrants Less Crime

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

I was enjoying a discussion in the comment section of my flogging post and thought this deserved its own post.

Did you know immigrants have lower rates of crime than native-born Americans? Non-citizens, illegal immigrants included, are much less likely to be in prison than US citizens. Immigrants, by and large, have lower rates of crime than red-blooded Americans.

Here are the numbers:

Combined in state and federal prisons, “non-citizens”–which includes legal immigrants–make up just 4.1% of the population (94,498 out of 1,613,656). I have no idea what percentage of those non-citizens are illegal immigrants from Mexico, but of course it would be some fraction of 95,000. (A big or small fraction I wouldn’t guess.)

By comparison, 6.9% (about 23 million) of the total United States population are non-citizens (2003, US Census).

Why are immigrants less likely to do crimes that put them in prison? It’s a good question. I would hazard a guess that it’s some combination of working harder to stay out of trouble, good family values (including perhaps religious values), and self-selection (people who have the desire and means to get to the US, legally or not, may be the cream of the crop compared to those left behind).

Many people, especially anti-immigrant types, either don’t know this or don’t want to believe it. Living in a majority immigrant neighborhood (in Queens) and a city (New York) where one-in-three is foreign born, this doesn’t surprise me at all. It seems to me the further one gets from knowing immigrants, the more anti-immigrant the beliefs.

[–Peter Moskos]

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44 Responses to “More Immigrants Less Crime”

  1. #1 |  terraformer | 

    Maybe, gasp, maybe it isn’t some sort of piety and virtue of immigrants (or the reverse either) but a twisting of the stats. Here is why.
    A) The stat above is not #/% who commit crime, but the %/# of people in prison.
    B) Immigrants, legal or not, face deportation after being convicted of a serious crime (which is what prison is reserved for. ie; prison != jail). So repeat immigrant offenders are highly unlikely to be in a US prison. And repeat offenders make up a LARGE portion of the prison population.
    C) All illegal immigrants are criminals by definition. They just are not ones who get sent to prison.

    So the above stat says nothing about the quality or piety of immigrants. All it says is that people will use any stat to reinforce their biases.

  2. #2 |  John Jenkins | 

    There is a case that crimes committed by undocumented immigrants are significantly underreported. We know that most criminals victimize people who are like themselves (because most people are sorted into neighborhoods that are largely homogeneous). If we infer that also applies to undocumented immigrants, then criminals who are undocumented immigrants are most likely to victimize other undocumented immigrants. It’s not too much of a leap that the (justifiable) fear that undocumented immigrants have of civil authorities would cause them to endure the crimes since the specter of deportation is a much greater consequence than the crime itself.

    This is another reason why our immigration “policy” is utterly misguided. In an effort to keep people out based solely on accident of birth, we manage to actively help criminals to prey on a significant portion of our economy.

  3. #3 |  McMinn | 

    Many people jump to conclusions before learning the facts about immigration and immigrants. I’m glad to see the facts accurately reported here, without twisting the truth. Great post, keep it up

  4. #4 |  Nolo Promittere | 

    Sorry, that statistic isn’t very valuable for arguments of leniency towards illegal immigrants. It fails for two reasons.

    First, it doesn’t account for the fact that illegal immigrants who commit crimes are often deported. Granted, if you kill someone here, you will do prison time here, but if you deport someone who commits a lesser crime, they aren’t counted in your statistics while anyone whom we don’t have that option with (i.e. citizens) always get counted. Also, if you deport someone when he commits a smaller crime, then he doesn’t have a chance to escalate his misbehavior here.

    Second, since it doesn’t distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants it is possible that the vast majority of the immigrants who commit crimes are illegal. If only ten percent of immigrants are illegal, but sixty percent of immigrants who are in prisons are illegal, then the percentage of illegal immigrants who are in prison would be over represented (i.e. greater than the percentage of the U.S. population who are illegal immigrants) – not under represented as the more general statistics you cited would suggest.

    Of course, you make a GREAT case for supporting immigration in general – it just doesn’t translate to leniency toward the illegals in the group.

  5. #5 |  Dane | 

    #1 and #2 = exactly right. We need a comment rec system.

  6. #6 |  Dane | 

    Also…I think that it would be a really good idea for the guest bloggers to be more careful about clearly signing their names to everything that they post. There are some views among the guest bloggers that I’m not entirely certain Balko would necessarily endorse, and I think that’s fine. It’s good that guests have different opinions, otherwise…well, they’d be boring guests. However, I can easily see someone from BalloonJuice or elsewhere miss-attributing something from a unmarked guest blogger comment, to Balko himself. Just sayin’ that could be a large future annoyance (example: flogging post)

    I would even suggest going back and relabeling all previous guest blog posts from this past week.

  7. #7 |  Rhayader | 

    Questions on the validity of the stats aside, I tend to think it’s mostly an issue of self-selection. Not necessarily in a “cream of the crop” sense that Peter mentions, but in the sense that people come here for a reason. One can pursue a life of crime for profit on either side of the border, so the self-aware criminal has no incentive to immigrate.

    All illegal immigrants are criminals by definition.

    So what? All pot smokers are criminals by definition, but people still discuss whether or not marijuana use “leads to crime” (spoiler: nope). The illegal-but-not-immoral practice of entering this country peacefully without authorization doesn’t make a person a criminal in the same sense as committing an act of theft or violence.

  8. #8 |  Sean L. | 

    Old news. .. very old news:

  9. #9 |  Marty | 

    people have always bitched about immigrants (legal and illegal), passed ill-conceived laws addressing ‘issues’ with immigrants, and have never been able to demonstrate where we’re not better off with them than without.
    I tried to navigate through the immigration policy as if I were a 21 year old Mexican man. It was impossible for me to legally immigrate to the US. A bureaucratic nightmare.

  10. #10 |  Johnny Clamboat | 

    #1: “C) All illegal immigrants are criminals by definition”

    Illegal immigration is not a crime.

  11. #11 |  terraformer | 

    Yes, illegally entering the country is very much a crime…

  12. #12 |  Leonard | 

    Ah, I rebutted this a little in the other thread before I saw this. Oh well.

    To what #1 said, let me add one point I made over there.

    The very measurement of criminality you are using is skewed for immigrants because their criminality in their home country is not being taken into account. You might kill a man in Guatemala, but as soon as you cross our southern border you add +1 to the denominator of our immigrant-crime-rate figure while adding +0 to the numerator. This necessarily lowers immigrant-crime-rate, as a mathematical truth.

    Another way that non-measurement of old-country crime affects your statistic is the well-know association of crime with certain ages. Most crime is committed by men from ages 16-35 or so. But many immigrants come during or even after that age-range; so we can expect much less crime on that basis as well. Again, by failing to measure crimes committed in the home country, you practically guarantee lower measured criminality in immigrants.

    Thus, if you want to measure “immigrant” criminality, or rather, the long-term effect of allowing immigrants in, you should measure the criminality of second, third, etc. generation immigrants. This is comparing apples to apples.

  13. #13 |  a leap at the wheel | 

    Look, I’m about as in favor of open borders as anyone (just want to keep out repeat offenders and future politicians, but maybe I repeat myself…), but it’s pretty clear that #1 and #2 have the right of it.

    As to #3 suggestion, we don’t need a comment rec section, we need an author rec section. Frankly, I find the median commenter on this site more insightful than this author. I hope next time, Radley picks a few regulars to step in and guest post.

  14. #14 |  LivingPre911Still | 

    The immigrants where I’m from almost never get arrested because once they commit a crime, they move so easilly to the next place to shack up that when cops go to arrest, no one speaks english, knows where he went etc… and if you think american cops are bad, put a mexican cop in an american uniform. They are the only ones who speak the language in the Department and know they are in a very luxurious position.

    Also, (yes… I do generalize frequently) they cannot drive! Most of what I’m talking about here from personal experience are driving violations, hit and runs etc…

    If there’s a major wreck caused by someone doing a multi lane cross because they missed an exit… it is usually an immigrant. Getting rear ended by an intoxicated immigrant who then leaves the scene… good luck finding him… see above.

    I’m not saying that Immigrants are responsible for more crime… I’m saying that a traditional police department is no match for their craftiness and ability to learn and work the system.

  15. #15 |  Dane | 

    #11 Ohh, let’s not be so harsh. Heck I made a mistake in my own comment (I forgot that the flogging post was in fact already attributed to someone). Sometimes, the easiest way to get at the truth of something is by posting your initial thoughts, and then hearing the input of others. I’m glad the guest authors here are taking time out of their day to keep the Agitator running, I enjoy reading this site.

  16. #16 |  Brandon | 

    #1 and #2, etc.: “Many people, especially anti-immigrant types, either don’t know this or don’t want to believe it.”

    Balko has posted several studies with similar conclusions from remarkably different data sources. At some point, you have to address the actual facts rather than twisting them to fit your own pre-conceived notions.

  17. #17 |  Dane | 

    I feel like I’m monopolizing this thread, so this is my last one.

    #14. At some point, you have to realize that calling data into question is not the same as immigrant bashing. Illegal immigrants aren’t in jail, because they’re being deported (#1). Illegal immigrants aren’t in jail, because reporting crime isn’t worth the risk of deportation (#2).

    This sounds like common sense to me. Could it be wrong, if we had more information on criminal trends among illegals? Yes. Is it anti-immigrant to note that these are more likely explanations than saying immigrants are inherently less crime-prone than the rest of us? No.

    “This is another reason why our immigration “policy” is utterly misguided. In an effort to keep people out based solely on accident of birth, we manage to actively help criminals to prey on a significant portion of our economy.” — how is this anti-immigrant?

    Maybe you should keep “your own pre-conceived notions” to yourself.

  18. #18 |  John Jenkins | 

    @Brandon: I’m not sure what your beef with me is. The issue I describe is endemic to these kinds of studies. Unfortunately, undocumented immigrant communities don’t get the kind of police protection they should because of U.S. immigration policies. See 8 U.S.C. § 287(g). That causes crimes against them to be significantly underreported. I don’t think anyone seriously disputes that because it is a serious problem (I’ll leave the Googling to you).

    I also don’t think anyone seriously disputes that most crime victims are generally similar to their predators socioeconomically (again, because of proximity more than anything). See Gottfredson, Michael. 1986. Victimization surveys. In Crime and justice: An annual review of research, edited by Michael Tonry and Norval Morris. Vol. 7. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Hindelang, Michael, Michael Gottfredson, and James Garofalo. 1978. Victims of personal crime: An empirical foundation for a theory of personal victimization. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Ballinger.

    To be fair, the original post is about incarceration rates, but I think most people would agree that an unreported crime is less likely to result in arrest, conviction and incarceration than a reported one.

    Since my personal position is that almost all immigration restrictions are bad policy (i.e., there should be a free market in labor like anything else), I am not sure what you think my preconceived notions are, but here are two that I might be accused of harboring: (a) incarceration rates are not a good proxy for crimes that actually occur; and (b) immigrants are pretty much like everyone else, mostly law-abiding and hard-working. So, what am I missing?

  19. #19 |  J.S. | 

    Ahh, open borders. Almost as utopian as national healthcare laws.

    I’d be all in favor of open borders if we lived in a North America as described in Probability Broach but we don’t… Its not an immigration problem anymore, its a migration one.

  20. #20 |  Nemo_N | 

    Well, duh.

    If some guy wants to commit a crime he can do so in his own country; it’s not like other countries don’t have valuables to steal, women to rape, children to molest, etc.

    They don’t need to travel all the way to the US to commit crimes.

  21. #21 |  T13 | 

    The comments are a breath of fresh air here. I was just reading the comments on the Judge Andrew Napolitano facebook page about illegal immigration. I would have thought the commentary a little less ignorant.

  22. #22 |  RomanCandle | 

    It’s a complicated issue. Humans are a very tribal species, and outsiders will always make tempting targets for both crime AND scapegoating.

    I know one thing for sure: opposing illegal immigration is like opposing the sun rising in the east. Economic and political factors in both the US and Latin America ensure that.

  23. #23 |  shecky | 

    All jaywalkers are criminals by definition. Yes, I’m looking at you, scumbag.

  24. #24 |  Bee | 

    As someone who lives in an immigrant community, I’m gonna have to go with #1 and #12. There is most certainly crime, from petty all the way up to violent, melting away is as easy as driving or taking the bus to another rented room somewhere else, and the police are hardly ever involved.

    I’d buy that family values might come into play in communities where there are families. But when you’ve just got 12 guys living in a house and converted garage, if they’re not showing up on official crime rolls, it isn’t because they ain’t starting shit, it’s because noone is calling the cops…including me. I’ll take my chances with drunk guys who at least know me, over cops any day.

  25. #25 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    I could be didactic and point out that any undocumented alien in the United States is, in Law if not according to common sense, a criminal. This is important only because the quote ignores it, thus calling the repute of the one quoted into question.

    But our immigration policy has been so broken for so long that NOTHING having anything to do with it makes much sense. The core of it is that political hacks IN BOTH PARTIES have voted for “tight” immigration restrictions while at the same time making sure that there is no money to enforce them – thereby being in a position to (superficially) please two groups; the anti-immigrationists and those who want cheap labor. Compounding this is the question of what effect cutting off the illegal immigration safety valve would have on Mexico. If the numbers I hear quoted that claim that money mailed home from the U.S. is the Mexican economy’s second biggest source of hard currency are rue, cutting them off could conceivably cause the collapse of the Mexican economy and government.

    Whatever else we do we must bring our actual laws in better line with what we are prepared to pay to enforce.

  26. #26 |  Jason | 

    @terrafromer Illegal entry isn’t the only way to become an illegal immigrant. You can also overstay your visa.

    Most people are deported on illegal presence charges, which is a civil infraction (like a speeding ticket). These proceedings do not require a full jury trial. Bringing illegal immigrants in on criminal charges would bankrupt the US.

  27. #27 |  supercat | 

    Why is there an assumption that the rate at which certain groups commit crimes will strongly correlate with the rate of arrest or imprisonment? It would seem highly plausible that people who can present a fictitious identity when arrested will be far more able to evade imprisonment than would those who have to present a real one. Perhaps there’s some way of countering that severe sampling bias, but I’ve not seen much effort to do so.

  28. #28 |  Dr. T | 

    The correct headline for this post should be: Legal Immigrants Have Lower Rates of Imprisonment. Nothing else was proved by the data. Multiple studies have shown that illegal immigrants have higher crime rates than native-born citizens. As other commenters noted above, the statistics only referred to imprisonment of legal immigrants. Without knowing the numbers of crime-related deportations, we cannot know that the crime rates of legal immigrants are lower than those of native-born citizens.

  29. #29 |  Leon Wolfeson | 

    C. S. P. Schofield – Don’t worry, they’ll be able to point at the UK for proof other countries are adopting their system of quotas!

    So, what IS my experience here? Oh right, games industry has shrunk 25% in the last 4 years, partly because of that. At least 12 individuals couldn’t take up jobs in the UK because of the new rules, all of which were highly skilled professionals, the lowest paid job of the bunch was £45k, and two of them (who would qualify, easily, for the US’s O-“superstar” visa’s (and one has in the past, in fact)) were jobs earning over £100k.

    And that’s just incidents I’ve been able to find out about.

    There’s a reason we – and the US, to a lesser degree – are bleeding games jobs to Canada.

  30. #30 |  shecky | 

    Multiple studies have shown that illegal immigrants have higher crime rates than native-born citizens.

    Show your work.

  31. #31 |  John Jenkins | 

    “Multiple studies have shown that illegal immigrants have higher crime rates than native-born citizens.”


  32. #32 |  BSK | 

    To all the people arguing that the stats only show that imprisonment rates are lower not necessarily that crime rates are lower, will you also acknowledge that the stats that are often trotted out that show the disproportionate percentage of people of color in the prison system show nothing about the inherent criminality of these folks, since that is so often the conclusion offered in response to such numbers?

  33. #33 |  DPirate | 

    I’d say it’s because they cannot afford the price of drugs.

    @BSK: Yes.

  34. #34 |  Westie | 

    What I find interesting in the immigration argument is the constant refrain from “Libertarians” about the ‘Free Market of labor’ and a quite outlandish defense of the criminality of illegal immigration not to mention the disconnect by ”Libertarians” between their positive view of State Police crime reports pertaining to the favored constituency (illegal immis) while OTOH their constant refrain against the Police State Laws. Reminds me of those defending ‘Free Trade’ when there’s actually no free trade it is in the real world trade managed by the corporate/government handlers.
    These inconsistencies may be one of the reasons Libertarian candidates never resonate with the electorate which generally responds to the common sense truth they live.

  35. #35 |  More immigrants, less crime « Reform Immigration For America | 

    […] The Agitator: Did you know immigrants have lower rates of crime than native-born Americans? Non-citizens, […]

  36. #36 |  C.A.J. | 

    The numbers are even more skewed, because a substantial portion of illegal immigrants in federal prison are there simply because they are illegal immigrants.

  37. #37 |  witless chum | 

    I’ve seen a couple of criminal cases where illegal immigrants were convicted of felonies in Michigan and were supposed to serve their prison terms and then be deported. I guess I’d assumed that was the normal way of doing things, but I don’t know.

  38. #38 |  markm | 

    supercat | May 11th, 2011 at 6:15 pm

    “Why is there an assumption that the rate at which certain groups commit crimes will strongly correlate with the rate of arrest or imprisonment? It would seem highly plausible that people who can present a fictitious identity when arrested will be far more able to evade imprisonment than would those who have to present a real one.” If fake ID’s were effective to avoid arrest and imprisonment, every native-born criminal would have at least one.

  39. #39 |  Don’t Be Afraid | Sinting Link | 

    […] Moskos furnishes evidence that illegal immigrants have lower crime […]

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  41. #41 |  Leisureguy | 

    The first comment above shows some remarkable ignorance and probably some prejudice as well: “All illegal immigrants are criminals by definition.” No, they are not. Violation of immigration rules are not a matter of criminal law, but of civil law.

  42. #42 |  Drea | 

    Percent of the total illegal population imprisoned vs percent of total legal population imprisoned. I would like to see that statistic.

  43. #43 |  pfwag | 

    Actually this is a “nobody really knows” issue because the Govt does not track or report crimes by the nationality of the perpetrator. As other posters have noted, illegal alien criminals are often deported rather than being jailed, especially for the “minor” crimes, so simply counting “heads” is not indicative of actual crime rates.

    In any case, there are some 300,000 illegal aliens in state and Federal detention systems and there are strong indications that illegal aliens do commit crime at higher rates than citizens and legal immigrants. See the crime chapters in THE DARK SIDE OF ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION. (Google it.)

    Regardless, since the perpetrator was not supposed to be here in the first place, that makes the collateral damage of our immigration policies and lack of border security even more tragic for all the victims.

    BTW, like the majority of Americans, I’m not “anti-immigrant” but am anti-ILLEGAL immigrant.” Like most liberals and progressives, Mr. Moskos doesn’t seem to know what the difference between legal and illegal immigrants is.

    However, the most asinine thing he wrote is “(people who have the desire and means to get to the US, legally or not, may be the cream of the crop compared to those left behind).” Where is the documentation for that?

    Maybe a good chunk of those “people” are hard core criminals like drug pushers and MS13 gang members. In actual fact we know that a good number of them are sexual perverts because ICE has arrested and deported about 15,000 ILLEGAL ALIEN sexual predators under Operation Predator. If you want to get really ticked off read the Sex Crimes chapter in THE DARK SIDE OF ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION and see what many of those “good family values” illegal immigrants are doing to children all across the USA.

  44. #44 |  Stray | 

    Is this bonehead really trying to push this garbage again?!? Don’t tell me, all of our prisons in California, Arizona and Texas are just full of really tan white guys with funny accents, right?