More Immigrants = Less Crime: An Unwelcome Reality for American Policymakers

By: Joe Katz

Today’s controversies over immigrants and refugees are a direct consequence of a bipartisan strategy that began in the 1990’s, which aimed to deal with America’s economic and social challenges by keeping immigrants out of the country. Following demands by media pundits and think tanks associated with both parties for “comprehensive immigration reform,” the Republican Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) in 1996, and President Clinton signed it without delay.[1] Before IIRIRA, deportation had been relatively rare, with the US deporting between 10-20,000 people per year.[2] Deportation skyrocketed to 150,000 people within three years of its passage. In 2001, Mr. Clinton passed the baton to President Bush, who managed to push deportations up to nearly 300,000 per year during his tenure.[3] But it was left to President Obama to finally break the 300,000 mark, earning him the nickname “Deporter in Chief” from immigrants and their supporters.[4]

Unfortunately for supporters of this policy, working people in the US have not seen any benefit whatsoever from removing immigrants. The workforce participation rate is the lowest it has been since women entered the workforce en masse in the 1970’s[5], half of the population is below or near the poverty line[6], and employers have been rocked in 2018 by a substantial increase in strikes as nurses, teachers, telecom workers, janitors, fast food workers, and others have walked off their jobs to protest rapidly deteriorating living standards.[7]

Unfortunately for immigrants, this has not deterred supporters of the policy, who have a new hero in President Trump. If anything, the government has doubled down on this failed – not to mention inhumane and politically dangerous – policy, pivoting away from economic arguments and instead using crime for their justification. Mr. Trump entered the 2016 race pledging to build walls to keep out “rapists and drug dealers,”[8] and upon entering office, he cited “terrorism” to justify a travel ban on citizens from eight countries. This was a down payment on his promise to effect a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”[9] These actions have been followed by dramatically increased enforcement on the border, raids in the interior, and attempts to end DACA[10], along with attacks on legal immigrants, such as the cancelling of temporary protected status for refugees escaping natural disasters in Haiti and Nicaragua[11], attacks on “chain migration,”[12] and arresting people who apply for asylum.[13]

But do law-and-order justifications for eliminating immigrants hold any more water than the economic ones? All of the research, from both the right and the left, indicates the answer is a definitive “no.”

The CATO Institute found in a February, 2018 study that unauthorized immigrants were about half as likely as US-born citizens to be arrested and convicted of crimes, and for authorized immigrants, the conviction rate was about 15% of that for US-born citizens.[14] This confirmed the findings of an earlier report by the Pew Research Center, which found that immigrants commit significantly fewer crimes than US born citizens.[15]

A March 2018 study published in the journal Criminology found that the low level of criminality among immigrants translates into decreasing crime rates in localities with increasing populations of unauthorized immigrants.[16] “Increases in the undocumented immigrant population within states are associated with significant decreases in the prevalence of violence,” authors Michael T. Light and Ty Miller found.[17] Furthermore, “the relationship between high levels of illegal immigration and low levels of crime persists even after controlling for various economic and demographic factors such as age, urbanization, labor market conditions and incarceration rates.”[18]

The evidence also indicates that when immigrants actually do commit crimes, they tend to be non-violent. The TRAC Immigration Project at Syracuse University, a non-partisan study supported by the JEHT Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund and Syracuse University, examined the top ten lead charges filed against unauthorized residents.[19] The Project found a nearly complete absence of violent crime. For example, the number one charge was “Entry of alien at improper time or place,” at 18,361 counts. Reentry of a deported alien came in at number two with 14,402 counts, and harboring aliens came in at number three with just over 2,000 counts. Of the 35,581 counts examined by the study, only 0.11% could be perceived as violent.[20]

The government has gone to great lengths to sell the idea that working class families will benefit by eliminating immigrants, but so far, working people have rejected the crime-based justifications just as resoundingly as they rejected the economic ones. Even in cities that Trump won by large margins, people of all backgrounds and political persuasions have come together to defend their immigrant neighbors from government raids.[21] Lawyers need to be there to back them up every step of the way.

[1] Dara Lind, The Disastrous, Forgotten 1996 Law that Created Today’s Immigration Problem, Vox (Apr. 28, 2016), https://www.vox.com/2016/4/28/11515132/iirira-clinton-immigration.

[2] Dara Lind, The Disastrous, Forgotten 1996 Law that Created Today’s Immigration Problem, Vox (Apr. 28, 2016), https://www.vox.com/2016/4/28/11515132/iirira-clinton-immigration.

[3] Dara Lind, The Disastrous, Forgotten 1996 Law that Created Today’s Immigration Problem, Vox (Apr. 28, 2016), https://www.vox.com/2016/4/28/11515132/iirira-clinton-immigration.

[4] Serena Marshall, Obama Has Deported More People Than Any Other President, ABC News (Aug. 29, 2016), https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/obamas-deportation-policy-numbers/story?id=41715661.

[5] Erik Sherman, Sure, Unemployment Went Down – Because More People Left The Workforce, Forbes (May 5, 2018), https://www.forbes.com/sites/eriksherman/2018/05/05/sure-unemployment-went-down-because-the-number-of-people-working-did/#290ff771408b.

[6] Current US Poverty Statistics, Kairos Ctr. (2017), https://kairoscenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Poverty-Fact-sheet-Jan-2017.pdf; Associated Press, Census Data: Half of U.S. Poor or Low Income, CBS News (Dec. 15, 2011), https://www.cbsnews.com/news/census-data-half-of-us-poor-or-low-income/.

[7] Eric Dirnbach, US Workers Are Striking Again, Jacobin (Sept. 8, 2018), https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/09/strikes-work-stoppages-united-states-bls.

[8] Michelle Ye Hee Lee, Donald Trump’s False Comments Connecting Mexican Immigrants and Crime, Wash. Post (July 8, 2015), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/07/08/donald-trumps-false-comments-connecting-mexican-immigrants-and-crime/?utm_term=.67625c8bdc9c.

[9] Ed Pilkington, Donald Trump: Ban All Muslims Entering US, The Guardian (Dec. 7, 2015), https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/dec/07/donald-trump-ban-all-muslims-entering-us-san-bernardino-shooting.

[10] Sarah Pierce & Andrew Selee, Immigration Under Trump: A Review of Policy Shifts in the Year Since the Election, Migration Policy Inst. (Dec. 2017), https://www.migrationpolicy.org/research/immigration-under-trump-review-policy-shifts.

[11] Sarah Pierce & Andrew Selee, Immigration Under Trump: A Review of Policy Shifts in the Year Since the Election, Migration Policy Inst. (Dec. 2017),https://www.migrationpolicy.org/research/immigration-under-trump-review-policy-shifts.

[12] Brian Bennett, Trump Says Chain Migration Allows ‘Virtually Unlimited Numbers of Distant Relatives, L.A Times (Jan. 30, 2018), http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-essential-washington-updates-hold-trump-on-chain-migration-1517356312-htmlstory.html.

[13] Conrad Wilson, Detainees In Oregon Say They Followed Asylum Process and Were Arrested, Or. Pub. Broad. (June 19, 2018), https://www.opb.org/news/article/oregon-prison-asylum-zero-tolerance-immigration-children/.

[14] Christopher Ingraham, Two Charts Demolish the Notion that Immigrants Here Illegally Commit More Crime, Wash. Post (June 19, 2018), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2018/06/19/two-charts-demolish-the-notion-that-immigrants-here-illegally-commit-more-crime/?utm_term=.672f51156360.

[15] Veronika Bondarenko & Skye Gould, Despite Trump’s Speech, Immigrants Commit Far Fewer Crimes than Native-Born Americans, Bus. Insider (Mar. 1, 2017), https://www.businessinsider.com/immigrants-commit-less-crime-than-native-born-americans-trump-speech-2017-3.

[16] Christopher Ingraham, Two Charts Demolish the Notion that Immigrants Here Illegally Commit More Crime, Wash. Post (June 19, 2018), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2018/06/19/two-charts-demolish-the-notion-that-immigrants-here-illegally-commit-more-crime/?utm_term=.672f51156360.

[17] Christopher Ingraham, Two Charts Demolish the Notion that Immigrants Here Illegally Commit More Crime, Wash. Post (June 19, 2018), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2018/06/19/two-charts-demolish-the-notion-that-immigrants-here-illegally-commit-more-crime/?utm_term=.672f51156360.

[18] Christopher Ingraham, Two Charts Demolish the Notion that Immigrants Here Illegally Commit More Crime, Wash. Post (June 19, 2018), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2018/06/19/two-charts-demolish-the-notion-that-immigrants-here-illegally-commit-more-crime/?utm_term=.672f51156360.

[19] Lakshmi Challa, “Invaders” or Asylum Seekers? Myths and Facts Surrounding the Immigration Debate, LinkedIn (July 12, 2018), https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/invaders-asylum-seekers-myths-facts-surrounding-debate-lakshmi-challa/.

[20] Lakshmi Challa, “Invaders” or Asylum Seekers? Myths and Facts Surrounding the Immigration Debate, LinkedIn (July 12, 2018), https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/invaders-asylum-seekers-myths-facts-surrounding-debate-lakshmi-challa/.

[21] Miriam Jordan, ICE Came for a Tennessee Town’s

Immigrants. The Town Fought Back, N.Y. Times (June 8, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/06/11/us/tennessee-immigration-trump.html.

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