The tripling of the undocumented population in recent decades is one of the most consequential and controversial social trends in the US, with debates about the criminality of undocumented immigrants at the fore of this controversy.
But things are often misrepresented, a new study finds, and the reality is that immigrants don’t lead to a rise in crime — quite the opposite.
Researchers of the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed that undocumented immigrants in Texas were half as likely to be arrested for violent crimes or drug offenses and less than a quarter as likely to be arrested for property crimes, compared to US-born citizens. The study covered the period between 2012 and 2018.
Previous studies looking into the link between immigration and crime could only address the issue in an approximate fashion, as most US crime databases don’t collect information on immigration status. Still, studies showed that areas with more immigrants tend to have less crime. Researchers haven’t previously been able to link a specific immigration status to the rates for specific crimes, which makes this study all the more significant.
Professor Michael Light accessed the database of the Texas Department of Public Safety, which works with the Department of Homeland Security to check the immigration status of those arrested finding that, surprisingly, undocumented immigrants had by far the lowest crime rate.
Texas has the second-largest immigrant population in the US, with roughly 4.8 million foreign-born individuals, of which an estimated 1.6 million are undocumented. The state processes large numbers of immigrants through their criminal justice system. In 2012, it had the third-highest number of reported noncitizens in their prisons.
Light and his team calculated the crime rates of U.S.-born citizens, legal immigrants, and undocumented immigrants and reviewed the relative contribution of undocumented immigrants to felonies. The proportion of arrests involving them didn’t increase with time and even decreased for some offenses such as drug crimes. Meanwhile, the crime rate of US-born citizens has been steadily on the rise since 2016.
The researchers acknowledged it can be difficult to estimate the exact population of undocumented migrants. So, to consider potential errors, they calculated that how inaccurate their population estimated would have to be to alter their findings. They found the population would have to be less than half as large.
While the study doesn’t explain why undocumented immigrants commit fewer crimes than documented ones or native-born Americans, the researchers found some factors that seem to contribute to this. Those who emigrate to the US from other countries are generally more motivated and intrinsically less likely to commit a crime, they argued. American culture may also play a role. Assimilation theory refers to the tendency for immigrants to adopt the cultural and social values of their host country, particularly as their amount of exposure to the country’s social and cultural context increases. The findings of the study could be linked to this idea, the researchers believe.
The Trump administration has made immigration a key issue over the past four years, with Trump especially pushing the idea that immigrants generate crime. Arrests by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) increased by 30% in 2017 after Trump gave the agency more authority to detain undocumented immigrants. Then, in 2019, the number of people arrested at the border between the US and Mexico reached its highest level in 12 years.
“Debates about undocumented immigration will no doubt continue, but they should do so informed by the available evidence. The results presented here significantly undermine the claims that undocumented immigrants pose a unique criminal risk. In fact, our results suggest that undocumented immigrants pose substantially less criminal risk than native US citizens,” the researchers wrote.
The study was published in the journal PNAS.