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The immigrant-crime connection

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | July 23, 2015

Killing at the hands of an illegal alien spurs furious debate about closing borders and deporting the undocumented. It is the year before a presidential election and candidates denounce undocumented immigrants as the conveyors of Mexican violence into our country.

When Robert J. Sampson, Harvard sociologist and criminologist, wrote about this news, he was not writing about the death of young Kate Steinle in San Francisco in 2015, but about murders in New Jersey in 2007. And he wrote to say that his research and that of others showed that immigrants are less likely than the native-born to commit murder and “that immigration — even if illegal — is associated with lower crime rates….” He had previously made similar claims in The New York Times and had gotten vituperation in response.

Geraldo Rivera and Ann Coulter on Fox News

Geraldo Rivera and Ann Coulter spar over immigration, on Fox News.

Popular skepticism toward Sampson might be expected, given the media coverage of sensational crimes like the one on Pier 14 and of Mexico’s drug wars. But behind the headlines, the daily reality on the streets of the U.S. seems to be that immigrants bring less crime. Indeed, scholars like Sampson have suggested that the surge of Latino immigration, documented and not, may partly explain the great drop in violent crime in American cities since the 1980s.

Now, two presidential cycles since the Sampson article, we have new studies and more technically sophisticated ones on the topic. What do they say about the effects of immigration on crime and violence?


The research I reviewed – several recent articles (see below) – is pretty consistent: Immigrants and concentrations of immigrants are associated with lower rates of crime and homicide. To be more cautious: at minimum, there is no connection between immigration and higher rates of crime.

Studies of individuals show that, as two experts summarize, “immigrants are less, not more, crime prone than their native-born counterparts.” Second- and third-generation immigrants start to look more like many-generation Americans in criminality (much as they do in other ways, such as diet and health behaviors). One study suggests that for adolescents the “protective” effect against criminality of being an immigrant may wear off after four years. But newcomers are notably less likely to commit crime than otherwise similar American-born youth.


Many new studies compare neighborhoods, cities, or counties to assess the relationship between local concentrations of immigrants (or of Latinos) and rates of crime or violence. The general conclusion is that the higher these concentrations in a community, the lower the rates. A couple of studies find that the connection depends on the local context. In more impoverished neighborhoods or in cities with historically larger numbers of immigrants or with immigrant political power, additional immigration seems to push crime down yet more.

Complex statistical work suggests that this correlation reflects a causal connection: more immigrants arrive and violent crime fades. Why would that be so? Sampson and others suggest that Latino immigrants have stronger families and community institutions, such as churches, than do the native-born. These provide more social control over youth. Researchers also propose that immigration has helped economically revitalize many U.S. cities and driven down crime that way, too.

Whatever the explanation, the general pattern is the reverse of the heated rhetoric: Overall, immigration goes with less criminal violence.

  • Almeida et al., “Peer Violence Perpetration…”  Jour. of Interpersonal Violence, 2011.
  • Graif & Sampson, “Spatial Heterogeneity in the Effects of Immigration….,” Homicide Studies, 2009.
  • Lyons et al., “Neighborhood Immigration, Violence, ….,” American Sociological Review, 2013.
  • MacDonald et al., “The Effects of Immigrant Concentration…,”  Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 2013.
  • Martinez & Stowall, “Extending Immigration and Crime Studies,” Annals of the American Academy, 2012.
  • Ousy & Kobrin, “Immigration and the Changing Nature of Homicide…,” Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 2014.
  • Sampson, “Rethinking Crime and Immigration,” Contexts, 2008.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American Life from American History.

Comments to “The immigrant-crime connection

  1. Thank you for this well researched and thought out article. The article misses an important point. The rhetoric that I am hearing is not about the law abiding immigrant population as your article suggests. The majority of these people are hard working credits to their culture and our society. The rhetoric is aimed at “convicted” felons who happen to be illegal aliens and about the sanctuary cities that harbor them.

    The sanctuary city movement was born out of the desire to help undocumented immigrants live in crime-free environments and stop their extortion and abuse by making it possible for them to go to the authorities and report crimes without the fear of being deported. I applaud this goal. It was never designed to protect criminal aliens from deportation and the reach of federal law. The 300,000 illegal aliens in federal prisons should be deported upon their release and if they return, pay a heavy penalty.

    • A code of silence manifests itself in several ways.

      One manifestation of the code of silence is to withhold vital or important information “because of threat of force, or danger to oneself, or being branded as a traitor or an outcast within the unit or organization.”

      For example, any UC Professor who proclaims that felons who are in the U.S. illegally should be deported would probably be characterized as anti-immigration by numerous vocal adversaries and that professor’s life would become fraught with controversy, and harassment, and job insecurity even if tenured.

      So this is why most people simply go along with the code of silence that pertains to their occupation.

  2. Besides stronger families and community institutions, another possible and even more plausible explanation is employment.

    A lot of immigrants come by themselves, with no immediate family in the US. In some rural communities and in some states, there are no churches conducting masses in Spanish, or public transportation is not practical or available on weekends.

    But at the very least the overwhelming majority of the people that I have come across over my 15 years here are working. They payed rent, food, transportation, and sent remittances with those wages.

    In other words, that surplus after covering expenses in the USA is the primary reason Latin Americans come to the USA. The surplus allows them to send remittances back home, helping relatives in the process, and in some cases building savings for a potential return. A percentage of immigrants do move back home permanently after spending a number of years in this country.

    Besides spending their time working in one or multiple jobs, there is also a high percentage of immigrants that combine school with work as I was able to do, learning this language in free community colleges or community centers.

  3. Strangely missing from the article is the number of illegal aliens who comprise our prison population.

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