Some Claim Immigrants "Make Us Safer"
This article from The New York Times provides evidence that threatens the theory that immigrants, particularly undocumented ones, cause crime rates to rise. That theory lies at the foundations of many anti-immigrant laws, like the one in Hazleton, Pa., proposed after two undocumented immigrants were charged with murder. The NYT article examines the results of studies like by of Robert J. Sampson, chairman of the sociology department at Harvard, who argues that the opposite may, in fact, be true: Immigrants' determination to succeed and fit in and the traditional family values many bring with them make them more likely to be more law abiding than the native-born U.S. population. However, as immigrants produce further, more-assimilated generations, crime rates among the families rise. Is it our existing social framework that criminalizes the children and grandchildren of immigrants?
Do Immigrants Make Us Safer?
December 3, 2006
By EYAL PRESS
Although the midterm election failed to render a clear verdict on illegal immigration, the new Democratic Congress may enact sweeping legislation tightening border controls and allowing more guest workers next year. If that happens, the rancorous debate about how undocumented workers affect jobs and wages in the United States will be rejoined. So, too, will an equally rancorous, if less prominent, debate: Do immigrants make the U.S. more crime-ridden and dangerous?
In an age of Latino gangs and Chinese criminal networks, the notion that communities with growing immigrant populations tend to be unsafe is fairly well established, at least in the popular imagination. In a national survey conducted in 2000, 73 percent of Americans said they believe that immigrants are either “somewhat” or “very” likely to increase crime, higher than the 60 percent who fear they are “likely to cause Americans to lose jobs.” Cities like Avon Park, Fla., have considered ordinances recently to dissuade businesses from hiring illegal immigrants, whose presence “destroys our neighborhoods.” Even President Bush, whose perceived generosity to undocumented workers has earned him vilification on the right, commented in a speech this May that illegal immigration “strains state and local budgets and brings crime to our communities.”
So goes the conventional wisdom. But is it true? In fact, according to evidence cropping up in various places, the opposite may be the case. Ramiro Martinez Jr., a professor of criminal justice at Florida International University, has sifted through homicide records in border cities like San Diego and El Paso, both heavily populated by Mexican immigrants, both places where violent crime has fallen significantly in recent years. “Almost without exception,” he told me, “I’ve discovered that the homicide rate for Hispanics was lower than for other groups, even though their poverty rate was very high, if not the highest, in these metropolitan areas.” He found the same thing in the Haitian neighborhoods of Miami. In his book “New York Murder Mystery,” the criminologist Andrew Karmen examined the trend in New York City and likewise found that the “disproportionately youthful, male and poor immigrants” who arrived during the 1980s and 1990s “were surprisingly law-abiding” and that their settlement into once-decaying neighborhoods helped “put a brake on spiraling crime rates.”
The most prominent advocate of the “more immigrants, less crime” theory is Robert J. Sampson, chairman of the sociology department at Harvard. A year ago, Sampson was an author of an article in The American Journal of Public Health that reported the findings of a detailed study of crime in Chicago. Based on information gathered on the perpetrators of more than 3,000 violent acts committed between 1995 and 2002, supplemented by police records and community surveys, it found that the rate of violence among Mexican-Americans was significantly lower than among both non-Hispanic whites and blacks.
In June, Sampson and I drove out to a neighborhood in Little Village, Chicago’s largest Hispanic community. The area we visited is decidedly poor: in terms of per capita income, 84 percent of Chicago neighborhoods are better off and 99 percent have a greater proportion of residents with a high-school education. As we made our way down a side street, Sampson noted that many of the residents make their living as domestic workers and in other low-wage occupations, often paid off the books because they are undocumented. In places of such concentrated disadvantage, a certain level of violence and social disorder is assumed to be inevitable. As we strolled around, Sampson paused on occasion to make a mental note of potential trouble signs: an alley strewn with garbage nobody had bothered to pick up; a sign in Spanish in several windows, complaining about the lack of a park in the vicinity where children can play. Yet for all of this, the neighborhood was strikingly quiet. And, according to the data Sampson has collected, it is surprisingly safe. The burglary rate in the neighborhood is in the bottom fifth of the city. The overall crime rate is nearly in the bottom third.
The safety of neighborhoods like these has received little attention in the debate about immigration — or, for that matter, the debate about crime. Ever since cities like New York began cracking down on panhandling and loitering in the mid-1990s, a move that coincided with a precipitous drop in violence, policy makers have embraced the so-called broken-windows theory, which emphasizes the deterrent effects of punishing such minor offenses. Lately, though, scholars have begun to question whether “broken windows” deserves all the credit for diminishing crime after all. Some researchers have linked progress to the cessation of the crack epidemic. Others point to an improved economy, community-policing initiatives or even the legalization of abortion, which reduced the number of poor, unwanted children growing up in high-risk neighborhoods.
Sampson’s theory may be the most provocative yet. Could America’s cities be safer today not because fewer unwanted children live in them but because a lot more immigrants do? Could illegal immigration be making the nation a more law-abiding place?
There are, to be sure, scholars who take issue with this rosy picture. Wesley Skogan, a political scientist at Northwestern University, has spent the past 13 years tracking violence and social disorder in the white, black and Latino communities in Chicago. In a new book, “Police and Community in Chicago: A Tale of Three Cities,” just out from Oxford University Press, Skogan concludes that the big success story took place not in immigrant areas but in African-American ones, where participation in community-policing programs was highest and violence fell the most. “About two-thirds of the crime decline in Chicago since 1991 took place in black neighborhoods,” Skogan says. In Hispanic communities, by contrast, Skogan found that the fear of crime, as measured in surveys of residents, and real social disorder — gang activity, loitering — actually became worse as the foreign-born population increased. Skogan acknowledges that Hispanic immigrants don’t show up much in arrest records, but he says he believes part of the explanation for this rests in the fact that those who are undocumented go to enormous lengths to “stay off the radar.” Many also come from a country, Mexico, where distrust of law enforcement is endemic, which is why he suspects they underreport crime and participate less in community-policing programs, as his study found.
Sampson doesn’t deny that crime may be underreported in immigrant neighborhoods. Nonetheless, he is quick to note that as the ranks of foreigners in the United States boomed during the 1990s — increasing by more than 50 percent to 31 million — America’s cities became markedly less dangerous. That these two trends might be related has been overlooked, he says, in part because immigrants, like African-Americans, often trigger negative associations regardless of how they actually behave. Not long ago, Sampson and Stephen W. Raudenbush, a sociologist who teaches at the University of Chicago, conducted an experiment to test this idea. The experiment drew on interviews with more than 3,500 Chicago residents, each of whom was asked how serious problems like loitering and public drinking were where they lived. The responses were compared with the actual level of chaos in the neighborhood, culled from police data and by having researchers drive along hundreds of blocks to document every sign of decay and disorder they could spot.
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