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May 14, 2010
2:20 PM

CONTACT: Bread for The World

Bill Malone 202-464-8180
Shawnda Hines 301-960-4913

Crime and Immigrants

WASHINGTON - May 14 - It may be a hackneyed lament, but it’s true: much of the debate regarding immigration is driven by hysteria. Hype dominates and facts are secondary, if they’re lucky.

As the recent Arizona frenzy demonstrates, one of the most provocative facets of the immigration debate is immigrant criminality. Immigrants – particularly Mexicans – are portrayed as harbingers of gangs, drugs, and violence. And one of the major reasons for the public support for Arizona SB 1070 was concern regarding the criminal element that immigrants allegedly imported to the Grand Canyon State.

Although we have a long tradition of blaming immigrants for crime (and other social ills), the facts show that – all else being equal – unauthorized immigrants commit crimes at rates far lower than natives. In fact, immigration lowers violent crime.

For example, as the immigrant population of the United States boomed during the 1990s, violent crime across the country plummeted, including in big-city immigrant gateways like Los Angeles and New York.

Perhaps the correlation of falling nationwide crime rates and the largest immigration surge in recent history is the most intuitive proof that the vast majority of immigrants don’t aspire to be drug cartel kingpins. But there is also growing empirical evidence for the notion that an individual’s status as an unauthorized immigrant is “a stronger indicator of a dispropensity to violence than any other factor.”

One study in Chicago found that first-generation immigrants – mostly from Mexico – were 45 percent less likely to commit violence than third-generation Americans. The study also found that “living in a neighborhood of concentrated immigration was directly associated with lower violence (again, after taking into account a host of correlated factors, including poverty and an individual’s immigrant status).”

As the author of the study, Harvard University Sociologist Robert Sampson states, “immigrants appear in general to be less violent than people born in America, particularly when they live in neighborhoods with high numbers of other immigrants…. Cities of concentrated immigration are some of the safest places around.” Even in Arizona, where complaints of immigration-related violence fueled the passage of SB 1070, crime has actually gone down in recent years as immigration flows through the state increased.  

Most social scientists claim that immigrants’ low crime rate is due to the predisposition of those unauthorized persons that choose to enter the United States. As a general rule, they are particularly ambitious, highly motivated to work, focused on saving money to send home, and interested in not calling attention to themselves for fear of deportation.

Getting in trouble with the law would not only jeopardize immigrants’ single-minded focus on working and saving in the United States. It also would hurt migrants’ parents, siblings, partners, and children who depend on them for the remittances that keep many families afloat in Mexico and Central America.



Bread for the World is a collective Christian voice urging our nation's decision makers to end hunger at home and abroad. By changing policies, programs and conditions that allow hunger and poverty to persist, we provide help and opportunity far beyond the communities in which we live.


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