Expert Commentary

Crime in immigrant neighborhoods: Evidence from New York City

2012 study from Columbia and Simon Fraser University on the relationship between crime rates and immigration status, poverty, employment and education.

The idea that new immigrants are linked to increases in crime levels is a persistent one with a long history in American culture. Many experts say that some Americans link crime with immigration because it gives them an easy scapegoat, and in surveys typically between a quarter to half of Americans believe that immigration makes crime worse.

Over the past decade, there have been increases in the number of criminal aliens in federal prison. That issue combined with controversies over unauthorized migrants and law enforcement issues undoubtedly feed into wider stereotypes about all immigrants. Further, high-profile crimes by unauthorized persons can become political causes. Some gang activity linked to new immigrant groups, while relatively isolated, can also reinforce these general notions in the popular imagination; and drug-trafficking dynamics complicate this picture.

Still, the research literature in recent years has steadily contradicted these general associations between immigration and criminality. Such research includes: a 1998 study by Kristin F. Butcher and Anne Morrison Piehl that surveyed 43 metropolitan areas; 2008 research by Robert J. Sampson that suggests immigration may actually serve to “tamp down violent conflict in general”; a 2009 study by Graham C. Ousey and Charis E. Kubrin, who studied 159 communities over a 20-year period; and a 2010 study by Tim Wadsworth, who analyzed America’s larger cities and found that those with the “largest increases in immigration between 1990 and 2000 experienced the largest decreases in homicide and robbery during the same time period.”

A 2012 study published in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, “Crime and Enforcement in Immigrant Neighborhoods: Evidence from New York City,” provides a new window into these dynamics at the level of a particular city. Authors Garth Davies of Simon Fraser University and Jeffrey Fagan of Columbia Law School build on the prior academic work in this area in an attempt to understand whether the same patterns held true for New York City. The researchers disaggregate immigration status from other variables such as poverty, employment and education levels to determine the precise relationship between immigration and crime rates.

The study’s findings include:

  • Controlling for the characteristics of neighborhoods in New York City that tend to attract immigrants, immigration actually appears to be a protective factor that reduces crime. There is no evidence that crime rates are higher in places with higher immigration rates. Indeed, immigration status alone often means decreased crime rates.
  • Despite reduced crime, immigrant areas experience disproportionately higher levels of enforcement. Black immigrants face more than twice the enforcement levels that native citizens do; Latino and Asian immigrants are policed 30 percent more.
  • Total and violent crime rates are lower when concentrations of foreign-born persons of African descent are higher.
  • The net effect of Latino immigration, which is dominated by Puerto Ricans and Dominicans in New York, on total crime is negligible. Latino immigration is correlated with slightly less violence.

Why might immigrants avoid crime? For one, foreigners often make sacrifices to come to the United States and are reluctant to jeopardize opportunities. Also, immigrants often place a high value on families and social ties and these support systems may aid in the maintenance of traditional values, the authors write. “The results presented here,” they conclude, “add further voice to the growing chorus cautioning against the politically simplistic and expedient scapegoating of immigrants. The stereotypical but erroneous linkage between immigration and crime is increasingly unsustainable, especially to the extent that it may be implicated in unduly high levels of enforcement.”

Tags: Latino, Hispanic, law, ethnicity and community, policing

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