What is the Relationship of Immigration to Crime?

President Trump has made his Oval Office speech to the nation (his first one) about his strategy to address the problem of illegal immigration. Part of his strategy involves more security fencing. A considerable length of the Mexican-US border already has security fencing, which has proven to be effective. Opponents of Trump’s plans are engaging in a wide range of subterfuge in an attempt to undermine them. One of the tactics has been to claim that illegal immigrants don’t pose a security threat to US citizens. This blog entry examines that claim and finds it to be problematic.

Since the current controversy concerns illegal immigration, either those who illegally cross borders or those who overstay their visas (it is estimated that 30-50% of illegal immigrants in the United States are those who have overstayed their visas), and their association with crime and violence, we might put to one side the association of crime and violence and legal immigration; however, as we will see, we need to include immigrants broadly in at least one respect, namely the problem of criminal aliens. 

I have reviewed numerous studies conducted on the general subject of immigration and crime and find them to be constructed in ways that downplay the problem; sampling is used to exclude crucial evidence and the focus is on crime overall. If we stand back, we find that illegal aliens make up approximately 3.5% of the US population yet account for 13.6% of all offenders sentenced for crime committed in the United States, including 12% of murder sentences and 20% of kidnappings. I chose the crimes of homicide and kidnapping because they are less likely to suffer from biased enforcement and sentencing—very few people get off for these crimes. What this means is that illegal immigrants are more than 3 times more likely to be convicted of murder as members of the general population. Murder is the most serious crime of all.

But it’s not exclusively illegal immigrants who are overrepresented in homicide. According to the GAO in 2011, a study population of criminal aliens contained 25 thousand arrests for homicide over a seven-year period. According to the FBI, there were 115 thousand homicides from 2003 through 2009, the period covered by the GAO report. That means that more than 20% of homicides were committed by criminal aliens. Yet the overall foreign-born population, which includes naturalized citizens, is around 13 percent. One gets an entirely different impression from reporting by major news outlets.

However favorable the rates reported by the media are to immigrants, they do not negate the reality of propensity. Supposing that rates really are lower, if there were fewer illegal immigrants, it follows that there would be fewer crimes committed by them, thus there would be fewer crime victims. In other words, the rates of crime and violence in the United States are bad enough without adding another layer of crime and violence on top of them. Put in human terms, it is not of much importance to the victims of crime committed by an illegal immigrants that rates for this population are lower than the general population. It is an odd argument indeed to claim that illegal immigration is somehow okay or not a concern because illegal immigrants commit crime less frequently and therefore more crime is okay (that is the implication). For example, a study in 2013 admits that, although research shows that immigrants do not commit as many crimes as native-born persons (this is one of the favorable studies to immigrants), if the number of illegal immigrants increases, then there will be numerically more crime committed by this population. Moreover, this study found that when police stepped up enforcement of the law, illegal immigrations became less likely to report victimization for fear of deportation; the decline in crime rate with increased threat of deportation was both because the element was being deterred or removed or because victims were more reticent to report criminal behavior because of their own criminal status. 

There are a myriad of reasons why immigrants are associated with crime and why that association can be elusive. One of the reasons individuals from Central America and Mexico come to the US to escape prosecution by authorities or violence at the hands of those whom they have betrayed, either fellow gang members or other gang members. There is an incentive to lay low or be more careful in crime commission to avoid arrest and deportation. The crimes of illegal aliens are harder to detect because many of them, especially those illegally crossing the border, are unknown to authorities. Foreign-born victims of crime are less likely to report their victimization to authorities because of fears that they will experience negative consequences, such as deportation (there is a massive activist network protecting illegal immigrants from authorities that knows about these crimes). Most criminal violence occurs within population groups, i.e. it is intra-ethnic, intra-racial, etc. As expected, immigrants from Central America and Mexico gravitate toward their ethnic communities, and it is, for the most part, individuals living in those communities whom they victimize. It is not unreasonable to expect that they are more likely to prey on other immigrants knowing their vulnerable circumstances.

What about terrorism? We are told that this, too, is a false concern. The large group of Muslims that killed nearly 3000 people on September 11, 2001 entered the United States because of poor border control. (Perhaps it is not the number of terrorists who attempt to enter the United States, but the amount of damage they do if they make it?) In 2011, Mark Metcalf found that, between 1993 and 2004, every one of the 94 foreign-born persons involved in actual attacks on US soil had committed an immigration law violation.

We know about the numbers of possible terrorists trying to enter the country (and they run into the thousands) because border control, which covers a lot more than just activities at the southern border, catches the vast majority of people trying to get in to our country illegally. To be sure, most of those stopped are trying to get in by plane, but that hardly makes it not about border control. I suspect the corporate media don’t want to tell the truth because the legal immigration system and airport security are tight and the success of immigration authorities in deterring and preventing terrorism proves the point that strict restrictions on entry work to protect the public. You have to come through a port of entry when you fly to the US. It bears repeating: given that the number is so high, and that only one-in-ten persons claiming asylum has a legitimate claim, the evidence is solid that tightening immigration is of great benefit to public safety. What we lack is the level of control at the southern border that we do through other ports of entry. This is because people who illegally enter by definition avoid ports of entry.

Whatever facts Sarah Huckabee-Sanders may botch, the fact is that border control has a place in protecting the public, and the tighter that control is, the safer the public will be. It’s not as if the American people are obligated to throw open the borders of their country and let anybody in. The evidence indicates that a tougher border control stance—which started before Trump—has resulted in a significant drop in individuals trying to illegally enter the country. That’s good news. But the government can do better. 

All this should be understood in the context of a one-sided class war being waged against workers. Because of bourgeoisie desire to maintain a continuous flow of immigrants into the United States for optimal economic conditions (high employment and low wage levels) and political advantage (cultural disorganization and social disruption), the corporate media, knowing the public is concerned about crime and violence in their communities, saturates the popular information consumer market with the claim, supported by a handful of studies, that both legal and illegal immigrants have lower rates of crime than native-both populations. It is disappointing to see the left move from defending the standard of living of working class of this country—it is the capitalist class that benefits from immigration, including illegal immigration—to a reckless disregard for public safety with an open-borders stance.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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