Undocumented Immigrants Commit Far Fewer Crimes than U.S. Citizens: Study

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Immigration rights protest, Washington DC 2016. Photo by Susan Melkisethian via Flickr.

In a first-of-its-kind analysis of Texas arrest and conviction records, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison concluded that crime rates among undocumented immigrants “are just a fraction of those of their U.S.-born neighbors.”

The authors of the University of Wisconsin–Madison study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences write that other studies have drawn similar conclusions, but some only compare crime trends with immigration trends — variables that can rise at the same time, but are not directly correlated. 

“It’s like asking if crime rates rise when unemployment goes up,” Michael T. Light, the lead author of the new study, said in an interview with the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s news publication. “That’s not the same as asking if unemployed people commit more crimes. 

“Those are related questions, but not the same question.”

For the current study, Light and co-authors Jingying He and Jason Robey accessed Texas’s computerized criminal history data for over 1.8 million arrests over a six-year span. Once they had access to the data, they were able to directly calculate comparisons of crime trends between undocumented immigrants to U.S.-born citizens.

They concluded that U.S.-born citizens are over twice as likely to be arrested for violent crimes, 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes, and over four times more likely to be arrested for property crimes compared to undocumented immigrants. 

Moreover, undocumented immigrants are roughly half as likely to be arrested for homicide, felonious assault and sexual assault compared to native-born citizens, the report found.

To generalize their results to a larger Texan group, the researchers repeated their crime-rate analysis with “subtle shifts in data” to assess the rate of arrests and convictions for misdemeanors and felonies using data from the Pew Research Center and the Center for Migration Studies.

Again, the researchers found that that undocumented immigrant rates remained low in every crime-rate analysis conducted. 

These results raise questions about Texas immigration policies which encourage local law enforcement to work together with federal immigration authorities under the Secure Communities Program mandate. 

Databases on arrests are provided to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — which is officially notified when a non-citizen is arrested for any crime, despite potential innocence, the authors write. 

“If the [Secure Communities Program] plan was to make communities safer, to reduce the likelihood of, say, a felony violent assault in these communities through deportation, it did not deliver on that promise,” Light said.

“Our results help us understand why that is.”

Light explained that through the federal Secure Communities Program, more than 200,000 people in its first four years were deported, despite not showing a unique criminal profile. 

“Removing them isn’t going to make you all that safer,” Light argued.  

Undocumented Status as a Crime Deterrent

While the new study concludes that undocumented American immigrants commit fewer crimes than American citizens, the study can’t quite describe why this is the case. To that end, Light believes there is a combination of reasons why we should expect crime rates to be lower among undocumented immigrant groups. 

First, Light says that undocumented immigrants have “a tremendous incentive” to avoid criminal activity because the fear of getting into legal trouble leading to deportation is a crime deterrent in it of itself. 

Moreover, Light explains that obtaining illegal entry into America is not an easy feat, and therefore, the people who are making the typically dangerous journey into the U.S. do not want to throw away that opportunity to commit crimes. 

“Many people who want to immigrate are selected on attributes like ambition to achieve, to find economic opportunities, and those types of things aren’t very highly correlated with having a criminal propensity,” Light continued. 

Overall, Light hopes that his research will be useful for immigration policymaking and that by dispelling myths with research and data, the conversation around undocumented immigrants could be informed y empirical evidence.

“If somebody says we know undocumented immigrants increase the crime rate, well, I’d say the weight of evidence is not in their favor,” Light concluded. 

Michael T. Light is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Chicano / Latino Studies in the Dept. of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Jingying He and Jason P. Robey are both Ph.D. students in the Department of Sociology and Center for Demography and Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The full study can be accessed here. 

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.

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