Report: Immigrants Less Likely to Commit Serious Crimes Than the Native-Born

by Joseph McKeown

With the recent tragic killing of Californian woman Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco allegedly by an undocumented immigrant with felony convictions who had been deported to Mexico five times, the issue of immigration and crime is being debated on the national level and, in particular, among presidential candidates.

While some are using the tragic death in San Francisco to prove a link between crime and immigrants, according to a new report by the Immigration Policy Center, a non-partisan organization whose mission is to provide research and rational analysis on immigration, immigrants (whether documented or undocumented) are less likely to commit serious crimes or be incarcerated than the native-born and are also less likely to engage in criminal behaviors; moreover; higher rates of immigration are associated with lower rates of violent and property crime.

The report uses a variety of studies and methodologies to provide a comprehensive look at the relationship between immigration and crime going back over a century. Data, for example, from the 2010 American Community Survey conducted by the authors of the report show roughly 1.6 percent of immigrant males age eighteen to thirty-nine are incarcerated, compared to 3.3 percent of the native-born. "This disparity in incarceration rates has existed for decades, as evidenced by data from the 1980, 1990, and 2000 decennial censuses," the authors state. The report also shows that even with dramatic increases in immigration, there is no corresponding increase in violent crime—in fact, during 1990 to 2013 when the foreign-born population grew over five percent and undocumented immigrants tripled from 3.5 million to 11.2 million, violent crime declined forty-eight percent and property crime fell forty-one percent. This is true even in cities with traditionally large immigrant populations such as Miami, Chicago, San Antonio, and San Diego.

While the report notes that immigrants as a group "tend to be highly motivated, goal-driven individuals who have little to gain by running afoul of the law," the authors state that unfortunately "immigration policy is frequently shaped more by fear and stereotype than by empirical evidence."

Politicians are already discussing changes to immigration policies as a result of the shooting death in San Francisco, but Christina Bejarano, professor of political science at the University of Kansas, cautioned in an interview to the Christian Science Monitor:  “[I]t is not fair to rush to extreme action, since that can endanger people, as well as foster more racist and xenophobic commentary toward immigrants without actually thinking through how to best solve our immigration problems.”