Does our immigration system encourage crime?

Let’s stop talking about bad hombres, and start talking about bad incentives

Concerns about immigration’s effects on public safety and crime rates have become a consistent theme in public discussions, and are currently driving calls to build a wall. President Trump has now spent the last month threatening to declare a national emergency to get the funds to do it without Congressional approval. These, however, claims are divorced from statistical analyses and feature anecdotes in place of hard-nosed investigations.

The press isn’t helping. One example of skewed media coverage of immigration and crime comes from the way a 2018 release of data on arrest records for Dreamers was covered by conservative media outlets. By running headlines about those with murder arrests, they were focusing on only 0.02% of the total arrests.

This coverage has painted a misleading picture of the relationship between immigration and crime. Researchers have tackled that relationship in a variety of ways, and an entire research field of “crimmigation” has emerged to inform public discussions. The general theme of existing research should relieve concerns about immigration and criminal activity. Instead, crimmigration scholars argue that slashing immigration levels, whether legal or illegal, is unlikely to lower crime rates.

Moreover, instead of bringing crime into the US, research shows that immigrants are less likely to be involved in crime than similar US natives. In fact, as immigration experts Pia Orrenius and Madeline Zavodny pointed out in a recent working paper for the Center for Growth and Opportunity, “In the face of such evidence, policies aimed at reducing the number of immigrants, including unauthorized immigrants, seem unlikely to reduce crime and increase public safety.”

The conclusions of crimmigation scholars raise an essential question: If trying to reduce immigration doesn’t improve public safety, what policies will?

Luckily, immigration researchers have examined that as well. In place of walls, quotas, and restrictions, the best research suggests creating a path to citizenship and removing barriers to immigrants working legally are much more promising policies to prevent crime. In the rare occasions that immigrants turn to crime, it’s largely because they lack opportunities for legitimate work.

The economics of crime

Since at least 1968, economists have examined crime as largely driven by the other opportunities that individuals have in front of them. Nobel prize-winning economist Gary Becker, for example, pointed out how individuals look at criminal activity like any other economic choice. The opportunity cost of crime is simply what criminals give up to participate in illegal ventures. When there are lucrative opportunities outside of crime, people pursue those instead. When faced with no other options or only poor ones, people turn to crime.

In Becker’s model, immigrants face two competing consideration. First, they may be more likely to pursue crime to pay in order to make money when other more lucrative opportunities are nonexistent. Research suggests this is when immigrants are most likely to commit a crime, and it’s largely income-generating criminal activities (car theft and robbery). However, even this research shows that immigrants are less likely to commit crime compared to natives in similar economic circumstances. Consistent with Becker’s economic theory of crime, this research only shows that immigrants seem to see crime as a way to generate income when are fewer and worse alternatives, not that they’re more likely to commit crimes in the first place.

The second consideration following from Becker’s theory of crime is that because immigrants face more stringent punishments if caught, immigrants are less likely to commit crime in the first place. Research shows that this consideration dominates the first. For example, immigrants can be deported, lose any opportunity to become a citizen in the future and be barred from reentry to the US. All of these factors create substantial risks for immigrants, documented or undocumented, that citizens do not face.

To see the relationship between immigration and crime visually, take a look at a graphic from the Brookings Institution.

Brookings Institution

It shows results from a survey of both foreign-born and native-born US residents. The green bars, those representing the native-born respondents, are clearly higher than the foreign-born respondents in every category, arrested, charged, and convicted. Perhaps the most notable difference is in the final columns showing about a 10 percentage point difference between the native-born respondents who had ever been arrested and the foreign-born population that had ever been arrested.

Incentivizing crime through immigration policies

Becker’s model of crime also provides some insights into how policy changes can reduce crime. Since immigrants are driven to crime because of a lack of productive opportunities, making it easier for immigrants to generate income legal and productive ways is a more promising public policy to prevent crime.

One of the most interesting examples of this is President Reagan’s immigration. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) incorporated a variety of changes into US immigration policy. It included increased border security and penalties for hiring unauthorized immigrants but paired these changes with a path to citizenship and legal status for millions of unauthorized immigrants in the US at the time.

Empirical studies of IRCA show the importance of improving the labor market prospects of immigrants, both legal and illegal. Dr. Scott Baker’s research, for example, shows that in areas where more immigrants pursued citizenship or legal status through IRCA crime rates fell by three to five percent. The effect was large enough to show up in the overall crime rate and was mainly because of a drop in property crime rates.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, by creating a path to citizenship, IRCA gave immigrants more economic opportunities. As a result, they would now be giving up much more productive opportunity if they were to commit crime. Immigrants are then less likely than they already were to turn to crime. Simply by removing barriers to immigrants freely working within society, they became more productive members of their communities.

Another study of IRCA finds less positive results, but they still line up. This research, from 2018, looks at San Antonio, Texas after IRCA was passed and shows increases in criminal activity, largely drug-related felonies. According to the study’s authors, this is likely because of the stricter penalties for hiring unauthorized immigrants. Since IRCA only applied to immigrants who had been in the US for at least five years, the new employment restrictions and penalties for employers would take away non-criminal opportunities for immigrants who had been in the US for less than five years. In turn, that makes criminal opportunities for immigrants appear better, but only because legal options were now more limited for them.

Work, not walls

Becker’s straightforward and simple explanation of crime is a useful guide for policymakers, especially as it relates to immigration. It shows that restricting immigration is not the best route to reducing crime by immigrants. Instead, policymakers should explore how to provide a clear path to citizenship and make working in the US easier for those who are here already or want to come in the future.

Again and again, research shows that immigrants are less likely to commit crime than US natives. When immigrants do commit crimes, it is largely because US policies push them into situations with few promising alternatives. For example, punishing employers for hiring undocumented immigrants diminishes legal and productive opportunities for immigrants. In doing so, it makes immigrants more likely to turn to crime.

By creating opportunities for immigrants to legally participate in labor markets, policies can reduce crime. When policies make it harder for immigrants to productively participate in the economy, policymakers are making US citizens less safe, not more. The time has come for policymakers to focus on expanding work opportunities for immigrants, not building walls.