Hispanic Immigrants and Crime: The Nonexistent Link

Craig Witt[*]



          In the United States there is a tendency to link current problems with a certain group of people who are often used as scapegoats.  Today it happens to be so-called “illegal aliens” (mostly from Mexico).  In the post-September 11 world the inclination is to link the rise in immigration with a rise in crime.  This common belief is based not on facts resultant of empirical research but on stereotypes that are perpetuated by both the media in the manner in which they cover the topic of immigration and the rhetoric used by politicians to attack it (Martinez & Valenzuela, 2006).  While there has been a common belief that immigrants are more prone to criminal activity, recent research has suggested that immigration and crime do not go hand in hand (Lee, Martinez, & Rosenfeld, 2001; Stowell & Martinez, 2007; Velez, 2009).  In fact, some studies have found that highly centralized immigrant communities may actually reduce crime (Velez, 2009).  Even with the empirical results at hand many members of society – especially politicians - still believes there is a link, requiring more in depth research. 

Early Immigrant-Crime Commissions

          The issue of immigration and crime is not something new to American society or scholars.  Beginning in the early part of the 20th century, the immigrant-crime relationship was examined by the federal government which sought to uncover the true nature of the relationship through a series of commissions at this time.  The first of the three was The Industrial Commission of 1901 which looked at the statistical relationship of crime and the “foreign-born.”  The commission came to the conclusion that the foreign born whites were less prone to crime than their native born counterparts (Industrial Commission, 1901).  A decade later the Immigration Commission of 1911 issued similar findings, showing specifically that there were not enough examples to show that immigrants were involved in a disproportionate amount of crime or that they produced an increase in the volume of crime (Immigrant Commission, 1911).  The final of the three early commissions was the 1931 National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement in which a broader range of cities and crime statistics were drawn from.   The commission reached the conclusion that, when controlling for age and gender, native born persons committed proportionally more crimes than their foreign born counterparts (National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, 1931).  Despite these early findings, the general consensus remained that immigration was the reason for the increase in crime.  Some scholars still believed in the immigrant-crime link and developed theories to explain the phenomenon.

Shaw & McKay

          The theory of social disorganization was originated to explain immigration and crime in Chicago during the early 1900s.  Chicago was an ideal city for such research to be conducted given its abundant immigrant population influx during the late 19th and early 20th century.  Shaw and McKay (1942) developed social disorganization theory to explain their findings on crime and delinquency in the Chicago area.  They found that immigrants resided in areas that were characterized by problems such as poverty, high population turn-over, and heterogeneity.  It was these conditions of the urban neighborhoods that immigrants were located in that made them more favorable to crime and delinquency.  All of these poor economic conditions of the neighborhoods disrupted the community and in turn created higher levels of crime.  As the residents, plagued by the conditions of their environment, could not create proper social control they thus suffered from higher rates of crime.  Shaw and McKay showed that the immigration and crime link was not because of the racially inherited traits of individuals but was based on the structural make up of the neighborhood they resided in (Shaw & McKay, 1942).  As immigration declined throughout the middle part of the 20th century interest in immigrants and crime waned.  However, as immigration began to rise again in the later part of the century interest in the topic was renewed even before the panic followed by September 11th 2001.

20th Century Empirical Research

          A meta survey from 1996 took all the existing empirical studies on immigration and crime to date and the same conclusions kept popping up, that any relationship between the two is linked to racism and xenophobia.  Yeager (1996) explains that through reviewing all the empirical literature on the subject that ethnicity and immigration status are not suitable variables for explaining criminality, but instead are better understood due to poverty and urban geography.  The universal finding of the meta analysis was that foreign born immigrants committed far fewer crimes than the native born, the generalizations about high immigrant crime rates are better explained by racial hostility and xenophobia.  The second and third generation immigrants have higher rates of crime than their foreign born parents which is explained by reference  to assimilation and the immigrant groups adopting the crime rates of their host countries.

          One of the first early empirical studies on the relationship between immigration and crime was Butcher and Piehl (1998).  The study looked at 43 different metropolitan cities utilizing crime data from the Uniform Crime Report (UCR) during the 1980s and compared the crime rate with the fraction immigrant, the amount of foreign born within a city.  Their study looked at two different ways in which immigrants could impact the crime rate.  The first was that immigrants may have a higher propensity to commit crime than those that are native born, and the second was that immigrants could push the native born people out of legal jobs, thus causing those that are native born with less job skills to resort to crime.  Both of these aspects suggested that the crime rate would be higher in areas with more immigrants (Butcher & Piehl, 1998).     What they found was that when controlling for population characteristics the recent immigrants, which were defined as having arrived within the last five years, were found to have a negative effect on the crime rates.  Although some cities exhibited higher than average levels of Hispanic immigration, they did not exhibit higher than average levels of crime during the ten year window.  They concluded that even though cities with high immigration may have high crime rates, there was not an association between the crime rate and immigration.

Martinez & Colleagues Research

          Beginning in the early 2000s, the research surrounding immigration and crime has been dominated by Martinez and colleagues.  The main point that can be drawn from his research is that immigration may not in fact lead to disorganized communities as suggested by social disorganization theory, but instead immigration, through the creation of labor markets and social institutions, actually stabilizes neighborhoods and thus reduces crime. 

          In one of the first studies by Martinez and colleagues (2001) homicide was looked at in connection with the border cities of El Paso, Miami, and San Diego (Lee et al., 2001).  These “border” cities are used because of their high concentration of immigrant populations.  Homicide data were culled from the respective city’s police departments to accurately account for race, which is not possible using the UCR.  Their results found that immigration and homicide had a null relationship in San Diego and Miami; they were negatively related in El Paso.  They also found that poverty was a positive indicator for homicide in all three cities for Latinos, suggesting that the contextual make up of the neighborhood is a better indicator than immigration for understanding homicide.

          Martinez sought to go beyond looking at immigration broadly and instead looked at specific immigrant ethnic groups in relation to violent crime, something that previous research did not explore.  Stowell and Martinez (2007) examined data from Houston and Miami and found that when ethnicity was looked at specifically in terms of immigrant status it had either a negative or null effect in terms of being foreign born and violent crime, this meant that even as the scope continued to be narrowed a link failed to be found.  In the conclusion the authors stressed not to assume a link between immigration and crime since other social and structural factors are better descriptors.

          Martinez continued to add to the slowly growing literature on the subject.  In Martinez, Stowell, and Cancino (2008) they looked at homicide data between 1995 and 2004 in San Antonio and San Diego, border cities known for their high populations of recent immigrants.  Similar to previous research they found that homicide was negatively related to immigration in San Diego, they failed to find any relationship between homicide and immigration in San Antonio.  Again emphasizing that local context is important to take into account when assessing the possible link between immigration and crime.

          More recently, Neilson and Martinez (2009) looked at homicide and suicide among black and Latinos in Miami from 1985-1995.  While Martinez has generally examined homicide among immigrants, adding suicide to the body of knowledge allows for a broader picture on the subject.  Homicide and suicide have been studied together in the past; however, by looking at it though the lens of immigration Neilson & Martinez (2009) attempt to see if these forms of violent death have common implications.  They found that in areas with more immigration there was less homicide and suicide, suggesting that recent immigrants are not adversely affecting the social structure of the community.  Furthermore, it was uncovered that more stable neighborhoods had less homicide.

          Velez (2009) looked at the Martinez research as a whole and synthesized it into the following conclusions.  He labeled Martinez’s ideas as the “immigrant revitalization perspective” which can be used to explain how neighborhoods can be revitalized through immigration in three ways.  First, immigration allows for the development of strong ties between family members which allows for the creation of social support within the community and the availability of an income, which helps in promoting social control.  Second, the arrival of recent immigrants in substantial numbers aids in reviving the local economy.  Immigrants establish businesses that are unique to their community which provide services and necessities to the community as well as provide jobs.  The third is the appearance of recent immigrants strengthens and expands community institutions, which play vital roles in controlling crime and networking among the neighborhood (Velez, 2009).

21st Century Research

          Following in the footsteps of Martinez and colleagues several other empirical studies have been conducted to examine the possible link between immigration and crime, and all have come to the same basic conclusion that no real link exists.  Reid, Weiss, Adelman, and Jaret (2005) looked at the effects of immigration on crime rates, both violent and property, in 150 metropolitan areas.  After controlling for economic and demographic traits, they found that immigration did not increase the crime rates for homicide, robbery, burglary, or larceny.  As well, immigration showed a crime reducing effect for homicide, and that overall immigration did not rise violent or property crime rates in the metropolitan areas.  They suggest that large immigrant populations create a larger service base for both the private and the public sector, meaning that immigration can create economic opportunities for both native born and immigrants, in turn reducing the amount of criminal activity by both parties. 

          Other researchers have drawn similar conclusions that areas with large amounts of immigrants provide each other with economic and labor market opportunities that create strong social ties to each other which instill social control.  In looking at homicide data in Chicago from 1993-1995 it was found that recent immigration showed no direct effect on homicide per capita in Chicago neighborhoods and the recent immigrants contributed to reducing homicide (Velez, 2009).  In a study which compared native born citizens, citizens born outside of the United States (mainly Puerto Rico), naturalized citizens, and noncitizens in Orlando that examined arrest data for violent and property echoed previous findings.  Their results were consistent with other studies that native born citizens had the highest rate of arrest for homicide, attempted homicide, robbery and aggravated assault and drew the overall conclusion that immigrants committed less crime than native born citizens (Olson et al., 2009).

Immigrants & Imprisonment Rates

          Hagan and Palloni (1999) looked at the immigrant imprisonment rate compared to the native born.  They sought to debunk the immigrant and crime myth and make two important points that are generally overlooked.  The first is that most of the time Hispanic immigrants are predominately young and male, and that regardless of ethnicity or citizenship status, are at a greater risk of being involved in crime.  The second is that as immigration increases the population also grows, and therefore so does the potential number of both victims and offenders, which tends to not be addressed.

          Hagan and Palloni (1999) express that one reason for the growing concern about the link between immigration and crime was the increase in the number of reported immigrants in the prison system.  However, this is explained by the fact that most of these immigrants were young and subject to pre-trial detention, largely because they were seen as a flight risk.  Controlling for other factors such as ethnicity and age, pre-trial detention increases the likelihood of imprisonment.  These facts are not apparent when solely looking at statistics; yet, these contextual concerns are rarely a consideration when the problem is presented to the public.  Given this concern, they looked at immigrants and state prison incarceration rates in the United States.   When controlling for gender and age, they found that Mexican immigrants, the majority of whom were in prison for drug charges not violent crimes, had similar imprisonment rates to native born citizens (Hagan & Palloni, 1999).  They concluded that immigrants were not causing an increase in crime even given their high numbers in the state prison system which was explainable through other contextual factors.

          Rumbaut (2008), Instead of looking only at crime rates and their relation to immigration, the author looked at crime rates and imprisonment rates in terms of immigration.  During the period of 1994-2005 both the property and violent crime rates fell, yet during this same period the foreign born population grew 71 percent, specifically the Hispanic population went from 26.6 million to 43.2 million.  In looking at imprisonment rates during the 2000 census, it was uncovered that the rate for native born was five times that for the foreign born.  In summary, at the same time crime rates were falling dramatically the immigrant population was increasing significantly.

          Talking head Lou Dobbs made a wildly false claim about the amount of illegal immigrants in the prison system, “And it’s costing us, no one knows precisely how much, to incarcerate what is about a third of our prison population who are illegal aliens.”  The problem is that estimates of the total amount of illegal immigrants currently incarcerated are only around six percent, not the 30 percent Lou Dobbs incorrectly states (Democracy Now, 2007).

Politicians on Immigration & Crime

          The reason for the common notion of immigration causing a rise in crime is perpetuated by politicians and the media, not a reliance on empirical facts which find otherwise (Butcher & Piehl, 1998; Rumbaut, 2008).  The use of politicians blaming immigration for crime is a tactic that is not new, yet there are several significant examples that can be used to help understand why this myth is still being allowed to carry on.  In 1996 there were a series of immigration reform bills being debated in Congress; Senator Alan Simpson from Wyoming echoed popular sentiment stating that:

Some have made the claim that more immigration-both legal and illegal-is what this country needs.  Anyone who believes that has not been listening to the taxpayers who are being adversely affected-for example, by welfare abuses, schools that are overcrowded…rising crime and expensive, time consuming deportation procedures.  (Simpson, 1996: 9)


Around the same time in his 1996 run for president candidate Pat Buchanan pledged to put up a security fence along the southern border “where millions pour in every year” to finally put an end to illegal immigration which was the cause of rising crime due to the high influx of immigrants (Dillion, 1997).  With the current militarization of the border the politicians have got their wish based on bad logic.  In a public opinion poll from March of 2010, 59% of Americans believe that the U.S. should continue to build a fence along the Mexican border. (Rasmussen, March 2010).  The majority of Americans continue to form opinions based on the xenophobic claims of politicians, which run counter to the empirical facts.

          Conservative talking head Bill O’Reilly has rambled on several times about how immigration is out of control and is the cause for increases in crime.  His use of misleading and false facts serves as one of the main reasons misinformation continues to be the standard.  In one of his shows from May 2010 he claimed that Phoenix had similar levels of violent crime to New York City which was the result of the 500,000 illegal aliens coming into the state of Arizona.  However when UCR data is examined we find out that in 2009 New York City had 5.3 times the reported amount of violent crime as Phoenix (Males & Macallair, 2010).

          Despite studies that have shown that homicide and suicide are less in areas with high immigration Neilson & Martines (2009) politicians still tout the conception that it is otherwise.  Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson in 2007 perpetuated this myth saying “twelve million illegal immigrants later, we are now living in a nation that is beset by people who are suicidal maniacs and want to kill countless innocent men, women, and children” (Sampson, 2008). 

          The trend of linking immigration and crime continues today.  The majority of the population still believes that there is a link between immigration and crime. The National Opinion Research Center’s 2000 General Social Survey reported that 73 percent of Americans believed that immigration is causally related to crime.  Still holding onto the immigration-crime link some cities went to above and beyond by enacting legislation against immigration.  One example is a local ordinance passed in 2006 in Hazleton, Pennsylvania known as the “Illegal Immigration Relief Act Ordinance” which stated that illegal immigration was leading to higher crime and thus the act was necessary to protect the citizens of the city from the crimes that were being committed by illegal aliens.  However, the ordinance was ruled to be unconstitutional and was overturned in 2007 (Rumbaut, 2008).

SB 1070

          While the Hazelton, Pennsylvania ordinance went largely unnoticed the anti-immigrant legislation in Arizona from 2010 known as Senate Bill 1070 received widespread attention from media outlets.  The bill was designed to be the most stringent anti-immigration law to date.  It included provisions that required all immigrants to carry identification documents proving they have a right to be in Arizona legally.  As well as the right for law enforcement officers to stop anybody they suspect of being in the state illegally and require them to produce documentation at any time.  Senate Bill 1070 was signed by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer on April 23, 2010 and immediately received criticism for its harsh treatment of illegal immigrants.  Religious and political groups likened SB 1070 to Nazism requiring them to produce “papers” at any time (Archibold, 2010).  Citing claims of racial profiling and impeding on the Federal government’s right to regulate immigration the ACLU and other civil rights groups filed a class action lawsuit and immediate injunction on the new provisions in SB 1070 (DiBranco, 2010).  U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton placed a temporary injunction on SB 1070 before the law was able to take effect.  Four keys provisions were blocked from going into effect including the parts requiring law enforcement to require checking individual’s immigration status and requiring immigrants to carry immigration documents.  While Arizona sought appeal on the ruling the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld the District Judge blocking of the controversial provisions of SB 1070 from taking effect (Gonzalez, 2011).

          One study has suggested that the recent attack on immigrants in Arizona is based on the drug abuse issue in the state.  In Arizona as crime rates have dropped over the past 20 years immigration has also increased.  While the Hispanic population of Arizona has grown by 195% over the past 20 years, violent crime has decreased by 52% over the same period (Males & Macallair, 2010).  What this data suggest is that the sudden spur in fear of Hispanic immigrants is not the result of rises in crime, but is actually a result of a drug abuse problem that has spun out of control.  With drug abuse becoming the second leading cause of non-natural mortality deaths in the state, Hispanics have been scapegoated as the cause for the drug abuse problem.  An immigrant drug problem simply is not the case given that the rate of Hispanic arrests for drugs has been declining while the rate for non-Hispanics has remained consistent over the past several years. Despite the fact that whites have a 2.5 time higher rate of emergency room visits for drug abuse than Hispanics.  Prejudicial enforcement of drug laws towards Hispanics seems to be the reason for the misconception that Immigrants are the cause of the drug problem throughout Arizona (Males & Macallair, 2010). 

Latino Paradox

          Given the fact that immigrants tend to settle in areas that are plagued with conditions that prone to crime, it comes as a surprise that they do not have higher rates of crime.  This has been dubbed as the “Latino paradox”, given the high levels of disadvantage and poverty experienced by immigrants and their community they experience lower levels of crime that it would be expected from the economic outline (Sampson, 2008).  Sociologist Robert J. Sampson posted his finding on the Latino Paradox in an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times in 2006.  In trying to bridge the gap between the findings of academia and the knowledge of the general public he explained the results of a study of violent acts in 180 Chicago neighborhoods from 1995 – 2003.  He found that there was a significantly lower rate of violence among Mexican-Americans than both whites and blacks (Sampson, 2006).  The New York Times followed up on Sampson’s Op-Ed piece by posting another article that described several major studies that have dispelled the immigrant-crime myth (Press, 2006).  These are two very rare examples of empirical findings being crossed over into the general public.


          Immigration and crime is a topic that will continue to be discussed one way or the other.  As long as conventional wisdom remains that immigrants are more prone to crime and the reason for the rise in crime rates, academia has a duty to dispel these horrific misgivings.  While studies continue to show that the foreign born are not in fact more prone to crime and that immigrant communities actually foster an environment that reduces crime it simply is not enough.  While some like Robert J. Sampson have attempted to bridge the gap of information between academics and the public, as long as bad facts are used to support personal opinions the status quo will remain.  Talking head such as Bill O’Reilly and Lou Doubs continue to skew facts on immigrants and crime to support their personal position, and legislation targeted at immigrants such as SB 1070 remains the norm.  While the link that immigration and crime had been proven non-existent since the early 20th century the uphill battle must continue to be fought in hopes of one day enacting actual change in how this country views immigrants and crime. 


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[*] Craig Witt is a graduate student in the Department of Criminal Justice at UNLV.  This is a revision of a paper written for a graduate class.