Dozens of studies over the years have found that immigration has little or no effect on crime in the U.S., on average. But research forthcoming in Criminology shows those studies offer an incomplete picture.
What we know about the relationship between crime and immigration is based largely on crimes that have been reported to police. But victims are much less likely to report a violent crime in areas that have drawn large numbers of immigrants in recent decades, a new study finds.
In fact, as the proportion of immigrants rises in these “new destination” areas, odds plummet that a victim will go to police to report crimes such as aggravated assault, robbery and rape.
In neighborhoods where 10% of residents were born outside the U.S., the probability of reporting is 48%, researchers estimate. In neighborhoods where 65% of residents are immigrants, there is a 5% chance that a victim will report.
The study’s authors looked at crime reporting in counties with long-established immigrant communities — New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago, for example — and compared it to crime reporting in counties that began attracting immigrant residents after 1990.
They find that crime reporting in counties with long-established immigrant neighborhoods is at about the same level as crime reporting in neighborhoods without large numbers of immigrants. But crime reporting is lower in immigrant neighborhoods located in counties the researchers call “new destinations,” which have “shorter histories of concentrated immigrant settlement.”
The study’s lead author, Min Xie, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Maryland, told Journalist’s Resource that the findings apply to all victims who live in these neighborhoods and are Latino, white or black. She and co-author Eric Baumer, a professor of sociology and criminology at The Pennsylvania State University, did not have information about victims’ immigration status at the time of the study.
Looking for ‘alternative data sources’
To generate these estimates, Xie and Baumer analyzed federal survey data collected between 1996 and 2014 from individuals aged 12 and older who were asked about crimes committed against them. The researchers focused on the 19,225 cases of violent crime that were recorded by the survey, including whether those crimes were reported to police.
Xie says pairing the survey data with census tract data allowed her and Baumer to assess how much crime isn’t reported to police and who’s not coming forward.
“Even though we understand crime statistics from police departments are important data sources, they are limited,” Xie says.
She says that the study’s findings do not contradict prior research, but rather offer additional context to help explain the relationship between immigration and crime.
“It’s important to use alternative data sources so we can understand the relationship better,” she says.
Prior research and its limitations
Last year, the Annual Review of Criminology published a review of 51 studies on crime and immigration dated between 1994 and 2014. Overall, according to the review, the most common outcome reported in these studies “is a null or nonsignificant association between immigration and crime.”
When the authors of the review analyzed data from the 51 studies, they found a slightly negative relationship between crime and immigration, but that the magnitude of the relationship “is so weak it is practically zero.”
The review’s authors also note that official crime data are not sufficient to answer a lot of questions about crime and immigration. For example, the data does not distinguish between documented and undocumented immigrants. Also, crimes such as sexual assault, gang violence and domestic violence are underreported among immigrants for various reasons, including language barriers and a fear of authorities, the authors explain.
“To truly advance research on the immigration-crime nexus, critical data limitations must be overcome, including incorporating information about nationality in official data collection efforts, further distinguishing between documented and undocumented status in the data, and addressing the problem of underreporting, especially with respect to immigrant victims,” write the authors, Graham Ousey of the College of William and Mary and Charis Kubrin of the University of California, Irvine.
Xie says research that relies on self-reported data about immigrants, some of whom do not want to draw attention from authorities, may not be as accurate as researchers would like. She says she’s investigating whether unauthorized immigration affects crime reporting levels.
“We are actually right now trying to do research to incorporate information about the estimated number of unauthorized immigrants — we are hoping to incorporate that data to see whether or not that would affect our findings,” she says.
Xie says she also plans to look at how reporting levels may differ among neighborhoods when it comes to property crimes such as burglary and motor vehicle theft.
Story ideas for journalists
- Research studies of crime often try to present a picture of the nation as a whole, Xie explains. She suggests journalists remind their audiences that researchers generally report their findings as averages. She also urges journalists to look at how local communities differ from national averages in terms of how immigration affects neighborhoods as well as how crime is reported and how police respond to immigrants. “There could be some local variations that are important,” she says.
- Research conducted in other countries offers important insights that could affect how Americans think about immigration and immigration policy, Xie says. “Don’t forget the U.S. is not the only place dealing with immigration,” she says. It’s a good idea for journalists to examine those studies and put them into context.
Writing about immigration? Read our tip sheet on covering immigration from Angilee Shah, a former senior editor at Public Radio International, and our tip sheet on covering Latino immigrant communities specifically from Maria Hinojosa, the anchor and executive producer of the NPR show “Latino USA.”