Immigration and Crime

Hoan N Bui. 21st Century Criminology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: J Mitchell Miller. 2009.

Concerns about the connection between immigration and crime have a long-standing history in the United States, dating back to colonial times. Increased immigration was believed to be associated with increased criminal activity. Negative perceptions of new immigrants were exacerbated by the fact that the British frequently shipped convicts on a large scale for white servitude in certain colonies where labor was needed. The colonists were also disturbed by people who fled to United States to escape the consequences of misbehavior committed in their homeland; these undesirable free immigrants were believed likely to become troublesome citizens. As the practice of transportation of convicts by the British came to an end with the Revolutionary War, new concerns arose regarding European immigrants who came to the United States after experiencing hunger and hardship of long wars in their country of origin. In addition, belief remained that several European governments continued sending felons to the United States. Thus, perceptions arose that new immigrants disproportionately engaged in crime because they belonged to the criminal class or because they were unable to adjust to new conditions of American life.

The perception about the positive relationship between immigration and crime also appears to be motivated by anti-immigrant, xenophobic sentiments. Negative stereotypes of newcomers often ensue from periods of increased immigration, in particular during economic downturns or when new immigrants differ substantially from the natives in cultural, racial, and/or ethnic backgrounds. In recent years, concerns about negative consequences of immigration to the United States have been based on the assumption that immigrants have caused many social problems to U.S. society, including changing the American ways of life, depleting welfare resources, increasing unemployment among native-born persons, causing housing shortages, overwhelming school and health care systems, and undermining the existing social order. The media also have blamed immigrants for the drug problem in the United States, accusing illegal immigrants of flooding drugs into the country.

These perceptions about immigrants have had important policy implications. Numerous policies aimed at reducing the flow of immigration, restricting immigration from certain countries, limiting social benefits for immigrants, or increasing penalties for immigration violations have been implemented throughout history in response to these negative perceptions. This chapter examines the immigration – crime link, beginning with an overview of U.S. immigration history. This is followed by discussions of theories about the relationship between immigration and crime, research findings about patterns of crime and factors affecting crime among immigrants and their children (the second generation), and crime victimization experienced by immigrants.

U.S. Immigration: A Historical Overview

Throughout history, U.S. immigration policy has been shaped by two contending views: One advocates that the United States should serve as a refuge for the world’s dispossessed; the other believes that immigration policy should benefit the United States by granting admissions for people who add to the economy and society but excluding those who may become a burden (Fix & Pastel, 1994). Many of the core elements of the U.S. immigration policies existed in the colonial era, but comprehensive immigration policies under the form of federal laws did not emerge until the end of the 19th century. In regard to federal laws, regulations of immigration to the United States can be divided in two distinct periods. The first period was characterized by immigration restrictions, beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which, among other provisions, suspended the immigration of Chinese laborers and removed the rights of Chinese immigrants to become citizens. From 1822 to 1965, several other immigration policies were implemented to define the quality and quantity of persons who could be admitted to the United States as immigrants. Criminals, prostitutes, physically and mentally ill people, and those who were illiterate were barred from entering the United States. National-origin exclusions were expanded to the Japanese in 1907 and to all Asians in 1917. The quantitative restriction on immigration was imposed in 1924 under the National Origin Act, which determined admission quotas for European countries based on the proportion of each country’s population present in the United States during the 1890 census. Consequently, a majority of immigrants to the United States before 1965 hailed from European countries.

A new era characterized by a shift toward a more liberal immigration policy began in 1965, with the Immigration and Nationality Act (also called the Hart Cellar Immigration Reform Act of 1965). The national-origin quota system was replaced by a system that gave admission preference for two categories: (1) relatives of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents and (2) people with job skills deemed useful in the United States. The law also created different admission caps for countries in the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. As a result, the number of female immigrants, as well as the number of immigrants from Asia and Mexico, increased substantially. Three other major immigration policies were implemented between 1980 and 1990, representing a trend toward more open immigration. First, the Refugee Act of 1980 created a comprehensive refugee policy and set up a permanent and systematic procedure for admitting refugees. Second, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 addressed the issue of illegal immigration. It sought to enhance enforcement by increasing border enforcement and instituting employer sanctions for knowingly hiring illegal aliens. The law also created two amnesty programs that gave certain types of unauthorized aliens a legal status in the United States. Under these amnesty programs, almost 3 million people illegally living in the United States became lawful permanent residents. Third, the Immigration Act of 1990 increased legal, employment-based, and skill-based immigration. It tripled employment-based immigration with its focus on skills needed in the U.S. economy. A new trend emerged in 1996, however: The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 addressed border enforcement and the use of social services by immigrants. The law increased the number of border patrol agents, introduced new control measures, and reduced government benefits to immigrants.

Since 1820, the year when immigration statistics first became available, the numbers of immigrants coming to the United States have steadily increased, even during the period of immigration restrictions. The number of foreignborn persons admitted to the United States as legal permanent residents in 1820 was less than 10,000, but this number has been increased to more than 1 million since 2000. These legal permanent residents are officially defined as immigrants. Besides legal immigration, illegal immigration is an important issue in the United States. Over the years, seasoned workers from many countries have been recruited to work in the United States under nonimmigrant visas for a limited period of time. A major source of illegal immigration has come from temporary workers and tourists who overstay their nonimmigrant visas. Foreign nationals who illegally enter the United States by crossing the border have also contributed to the illegal immigrant population. By 2006, the foreign-born population in the United States (including both legal and illegal immigrants) reached 37.5 million, accounting for 12% of the U.S. population. The illegal immigrant population was estimated at 12 million, or one third of the foreign-born population. In this chapter, the term immigrants refers to foreign-born persons who are admitted to the United States as legal permanent residents or those who are allowed to resettle in the United States but do not have yet a permanent resident status. This group is also considered the first immigrant generation.

Theories on the Relationship between Immigration and Crime

Several theories have been used to explain the relationship between immigration and crime as well as patterns of criminal behavior in different immigrant groups and generations. These theories focus on different factors considered important in shaping individual behavior and immigration resettlement experiences.

Self-Selection Theory

Low levels of criminality among early immigrants have led to the assumption that these immigrants were selfselected economic individuals who had a low criminal tendency. This is known as self-selection theory. Advocates of self-selection theory argue that because these immigrants left their homeland and came to the United States for economic opportunities, most of them were hard working. Due to their interest in long-term advancement, they behaved themselves and avoided getting into trouble with the law. Recently, Butcher and Piehl (2005) used the model of labor market outcomes to explain low levels of criminality among immigrants who came to the United States after 1965 and to support the self-selection hypothesis. According to Butcher and Piehl, some occupational skills are transferable across countries but translate into different earnings across places. Thus, lowearning skills in one country may be translated into a very different level of earning in other countries. When possible, immigrants will choose to move to a country where their earnings will be higher, and the economic outcomes can serve as a protection against criminal activities.

Social Structure Theories

Social structure theories focus on socioeconomic structures that shape economic opportunities, which in turn influence criminal tendency. According to strain theory, developed by Merton (1938), material success depends on education and job opportunities, which are not equally available to everyone. When legitimate opportunities are not available, crime can be an innovative alternative to achieve material goals. Because many new immigrants are unskilled and poorly educated, and because economic opportunities do not penetrate urban ghettos, where many new immigrants resettle, crime is likely to be an option. Social disorganization theory, developed by Shaw and McKay (1942), emphasizes the adverse social conditions in urban ghettoes that facilitate the breakdown of community institutions and social control mechanisms. According to this theory, poverty, high levels of population turnover, cultural heterogeneity, and the presence of a large number of adult criminals weaken social control and foster delinquency. Immigration increases crime because it causes social change and creates social disorganization that makes social control less effective.

Culture-Based Theories

The subculture-of-violence theory, developed by Wolfgang and Ferracuti (1967), suggests that as poor people adapt to their structural conditions, violence can become a normal and expected means of dispute resolution in deprived and disorganized communities. Because new immigrants are more likely than native individuals to live in these areas, it is assumed that they are more likely to engage in violent crime.Culture conflict theory, on the other hand, emphasizes the difference between U.S. laws and cultural traditions that immigrants brought from their home countries. According to Sellin (1938), criminal law reflects the values and interests of the dominant groups, and the system of values and norms among immigrants may be quite different. When the cultural codes of immigrants are in conflict with those of the host society, the behavior of immigrants will be labeled deviant or criminal. Thus, the conflict of cultures is a reason for crime among immigrants.

Acculturation and Assimilation Perspectives

Acculturation, or cultural assimilation, refers to changes in attitudes and/or behaviors as a result of contact with other cultures. Among immigrants and their children, cultural change occurs on a number of dimensions, including the language, cultural beliefs, values, behaviors, and one’s loyalty and sense of belonging to the host culture and one’s culture of origin. The classic assimilation model proposed by Gordon (1964) posits that acculturation to and acceptance by the host society are prerequisites for social and economic mobility. The acquisition of English proficiency, higher levels of education, and valuable new job skills can ease the adaptation process and improve the immigrants’ chance of success in the U.S. economy. A lack of acculturation is considered a factor that contributes to crime and delinquency among immigrants who lack knowledge of new legal norms and thus the ability to adapt to the new economy.

Research findings about low levels of crime and delinquency among the foreign-born have challenged the classic model of assimilation and suggest that acculturation also has negative consequences. Recent literature indicates that the longer immigrants and their children live in the United States, the more they become subject to economic and social forces, such as high rates of family disintegration and substance use, that are found to be associated with criminal behavior among the natives. In addition, with greater time and socialization in U.S. institutions, neighborhoods, and youth culture, the children of immigrants increasingly adopt behavioral norms of the host society, including health and risk behaviors. Acculturated adolescents are likely to challenge the cultural mandate regarding parental control and authority when they experience conflicting sets of expectations from their foreign-born parents and persons from the larger society with whom they are in most immediate contact. Thus, acculturation can facilitate delinquency by weakening parent-child relationships and diminishing parental authority.

Segmented Assimilation Perspective

The segmented assimilation perspective was developed with a focus on the changing U.S. economy and labor market and how they affect the experience of recent immigrants who have come mostly from Asia and Latin America. According to Portes and Zhou (1993), new immigrants and their children experience different adaptation processes based on the characteristics of the U.S. population in which they are integrated. Consequently, greater exposure to American culture may be associated with mixed adaptation outcomes. Depending on the type of human capital (education and skills) and social capital (social resources and supportive opportunities) that different immigrant groups possess, one path will lead to the assimilation of the immigrants and their children to the middle-class majority. An opposite type of adaptation caused by poverty and racial segregation will lead to downward mobility and the assimilation of immigrants and their children into the inner-city underclass. The exposure to and contacts with various types of social problems commonly found in lower class neighborhoods will facilitate crime and delinquency among children of immigrants. Adherence to the traditional values and retention of ethnic identity will lead to the third path of adaptation, with rapid economic advancement and the preservation of values and solidarity among immigrants. Communities of co-ethnic people can supply to new immigrants the types of social capital that can protect against criminal behavior by increasing economic opportunities, enforcing norms against divorce and family disruption, and reinforcing parental authority over children.

Relationships between Immigration and Crime

The link between immigration and crime became a research topic at the turn of the 20th century, after immigrants from Europe came to the United States in large numbers. The immigration-crime relationship was not a major research topic before this because the trend of immigration was slow during this period and because it was believed that large segments of European immigrants coming in the early 20th century were already assimilated to U.S. society. With the open-door policy under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, new immigrants again arrived in the United States in numbers not seen since the turn of the 20th century. Post-1965 immigration, which included large numbers of Asians, Afro-Caribbeans, and Latinos, renewed research interest in the topic partly because of increased public debates about the costs and benefits of immigration and partly because of the coincidence of two social phenomena: (1) the arrival of new immigrants and (2) the rise in crime rates in the 1970s and the 1980s. There were also concerns about low levels of labor market skills among new immigrants, especially those who arrived through clandestine channels and legal loopholes. Early and recent studies produced different findings but did not show strong evidence about the causal effects of immigration on crime. Instead, they indicated the effects of various socioeconomic factors on criminal behavior among immigrants.

No Negative Effects of Immigration on Crime

Several early and recent studies did not find evidence about the negative effect of immigration on the crime problem. Findings from three early studies, including those of the Industrial Commission (1901), the Immigration Commission (1911), and the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement (also popularly known as the Wickersham Commission, 1931-1932), indicated that, on the macrolevel, cities with a high proportion of foreign-born persons did not necessarily have higher crime rates than cities with a lower proportion of foreign-born persons. On the microlevel, foreign-born whites were viewed as less criminal than U.S. born whites because they had lower rates of incarceration. Court records also showed that foreign-born people were less likely than native-born people to be found guilty of crime. Research in recent years has provided similar findings, showing that neighborhoods with large concentrations of the foreign-born had lower levels of violence than those with smaller proportions of foreign-born residents. Cities near the U.S.-Mexico border, such as El Paso, Texas, and San Diego, California, have been ranked as low-crime areas, and cities with concentrated immigrant populations, such as New York, have been considered among the safest places in the United States. Research on several ethnic-racial groups perceived as having high levels of crime provided further evidence for a low level of crime among immigrants. Compared with U.S. born Mexican Americans, foreign-born Mexicans in the United States have lower rates of arrest, conviction, and incarceration. In Miami, Florida, Haitian and Latino immigrants are underrepresented in homicide relative to their group sizes. Homicide rates among Haitians are much lower than those among U.S.-born blacks in the same area and, in some cases, even lower than those among U.S.-born whites. Mariel refugees, who came to the United States from Cuba in the 1980s, were rarely overrepresented among homicide offenders. Although they were likely to be involved in acquaintance homicides, there is little evidence that they were disproportionately involved in stranger homicide or that they were unusually violent, as suggested by dominant themes in popular stereotypes.

Although most of the research just discussed did not explain the reason for the low levels of arrest and conviction among foreign-born immigrants, a recent study conducted by Butcher and Piehl (2005) suggested that the self-selected nature of immigrants explains their low levels of criminality. They found that recent immigrants from all racial and ethnic backgrounds had lower levels of education but that they also had substantially lower levels of incarceration than natives, even during the time period when institutionalization expanded. In 2000, among men ages 18 through 39, the group that made up the vast majority of the prison population, the foreign-born had an incarceration rate (0.7%) that was 5 times lower than that of the native-born (3.5%). After finding no support for other explanations (e.g., increased deportation and deterrence), Butcher and Piehl concluded that immigrants were selfselected from among those with a low criminal propensity.

Age and Gender Structure and Crime Among Immigrants

Not all studies have found low levels of crime among immigrants, however. Because young males have higher crime rates than other age and gender groups, the large proportions of young males in particular immigrant groups can contribute to high levels of crime in these groups. Incarceration rates among immigrants from Ireland and Germany in the 1850s were more than 10 times higher than those among the native-born, and these two immigrant groups had a large proportion (60%) of young males. In the study conducted by the Industrial Commission (1901), foreign-born whites had an overall imprisonment rate that was higher than the rate among U.S.-born whites but lower than the rate among U.S.-born blacks. However, among people aged 20 to 45, imprisonment rates among the foreign-born were only 15% higher than those among the native whites and, among the adult male population (age 21 or older), foreign-born whites had lower imprisonment rates than native-born whites. Research on Mexican immigrants in the 1930s suggested that a large proportion of young males was a reason behind the high offending rates in this group. Recent studies also have indicated the effect of age and gender on crime rate among immigrants. In Miami, homicide rates increased shortly after Afro-Caribbean immigrants (including Mariel Cubans, Haitians, and Jamaicans) arrived in the 1980s. In late 1990s, when these immigrant groups grew in size, became older, and had low proportions of young males, their homicide rates rapidly declined, dropping below the average national rate for cities of Miami’s size (Martinez & Lee, 2000). According to Hagan and Palloni (1998), Hispanic immigrants are disproportionately young males who, regardless of immigration status, are at a greater risk of criminal involvement. When age and gender are taken into account, the involvement of Hispanic immigrants in crime is less than that among the native-born.

Socioeconomic Conditions of Immigration Resettlement and Crime

Negative experience with emigration and resettlement are considered factors that contribute to adaptation outcomes. Problems faced by immigrants in their country of origin before emigration and their negative experience during the process of immigration and resettlement, including physical torture, posttraumatic stress disorder, discrimination, and alienation, can be associated with the tendency to commit crime. Research indicates that Southeast Asians in the United States were more likely than native whites to engage in crimes that produced financial gains, such as theft, auto theft, and petty theft. Youthful crime among Southeast Asians has been considered as emerging out of the cohort that first arrived in 1980; many of them were alienated youth who had emigrated without parents, suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder caused by hardship in the process of immigration, and experienced adaptation problems.

Crime rates among immigrants also vary across locations, even for the same racial and ethnic groups. Among Puerto Rican newcomers, those living in New York City tend to have higher rates of homicide, whereas those living elsewhere have rates comparable to those among native whites. In rural areas in Texas and California, where the Mexican populations are large, the criminality of foreignborn Mexicans is relatively lower than that among the native-born. In more urban communities, Mexican immigrants have relatively higher crime rates. The role of immigration in contributing to high levels of crime in some locations of concentrated immigration is considered limited, but economic deprivations and social disorganization are seen as main factors. In a well-known study of delinquency in urban areas conducted in Chicago in the early part of the 20th century, Shaw and McKay (1942) found high arrest rates for delinquency in areas with large concentrations of immigrants. As these immigrant groups moved from poor areas into places where crime rates were lower, the groups’ arrest rates also fell. Recent research also has shown that high levels of violent crime among Latinos in major cities in California were associated with the existence of local alcohol outlets and other vice-related businesses.

Cultural Conflicts and Crime Among Immigrants

Besides different levels of criminality, patterns of crime committed by immigrants and native-born individuals also differ. Early research showed that, for gainful offenses (or property offenses, including robbery, burglary, theft, and fraud), native-born people had higher conviction rates than foreign-born groups. For offenses against public policy (e.g., carrying weapons, intoxication, vagrancy, and truancy), the foreign-born had greater conviction rates than the native-born. The formal criminal charge rates for homicide and aggravated assault among the foreign-born approached those among native-born whites, and in some locations were even slightly higher. Different patterns of offending were also found across national groups. The Italian group stood out for high conviction rates for homicide, rape, and kidnapping; Russians for larceny and receiving stolen goods; and French for offenses against chastity and for prostitution. Mexicans had higher arrest rates than native-born whites, but the vast majority of Mexican arrests were for public order misdemeanors, such as vagrancy, possession of marijuana, and public intoxication. Asian immigrants had consistently low arrest rates, except for gambling. Foreign-born Chinese had the highest arrest rate of any ethnic group in San Francisco, and gambling in particular led to unusually high arrest rates among Chinese in San Francisco and other major cities.

Different patterns of crime between foreign-born groups and native-born groups, and among different national groups, suggest the impact of cultural conflicts on criminal behavior. The Wickersham Commission (1931) identified two factors that brought early immigrants into conflict with the law. First, immigrants’ ignorance of the language (English) was a source of confusion and misunderstanding about laws, regulations, and customs in the United States.

Many immigrants were arrested for unknowingly violating ordinances that regulated licenses and provided for sanitary and fire prevention inspections. Second, immigrants brought with them a well-defined set of habits of thought and behavior, which had been built up in an environment that was entirely different, in regard to law and custom, in the United States. During the Prohibition era, U.S. laws about gambling; prostitution; and the manufacture, sale, and consumption of beer, wine, and liquor were entirely different from those in the countries from which the immigrants came. Their lifetime habits and experience in the country of origin did not readily prepare them for change. Some immigrants groups also held a strong belief in personal and family pride and were accustomed to the practice of men’s use of violence, including killing, to wipe out any stain brought upon the honor of their women. Because of the availability of weapons that many immigrants carried to protect personal safety in certain locations, flaring anger over issues of honor often inevitably led to fatal endings. This was considered one of the primary reasons for the high percentage of violent crime among the foreign-born.

In recent years, culture conflicts were also considered a factor contributing to domestic violence in immigrant families. Gender inequality, women’s subordination to men, and cultural and legal norms that give men the right to control women are considered factors contributing to domestic violence. In the United States, cultural and legal norms that support gender equality as well as economic opportunities for women often change the power dynamics within immigrant families. Being threatened by the perceived or actual loss of power, but not familiar with the prohibition of domestic violence in the United States, often facilitates immigrant men’s use of violence against their wives or female partners.

Crime in the Second Generation

Research evidence suggests that although immigrants do not disproportionately engage in criminal activity, the crime problem is associated with the second generation (i.e., U.S.-born children of foreign-born immigrants), whose members have higher rates of arrest, charge, and incarceration than those among foreign-born immigrants. Sometimes, the levels of criminality among members of the second generation are even higher than those among the native-born of native parentage (third and higher generations). Patterns of offense committed by members of the second generation also shift away from those found among their foreign-born parents toward those among the native-born. Early studies indicated that public intoxication was the most common offense among foreign-born whites, but sons of the foreign-born were arrested and charged with serious crime against persons and property (e.g., homicide and fraud) very much more frequently than their foreign-born parents. In regard to robbery, arrest rates among members of the second generation were 4 times greater than those among their foreign-born parents and even surpassed arrest rates among U.S.-born whites of U.S.-born parents. In regard to incarceration, U.S.-born whites of foreign-born parents (the second generation) had an imprisonment rate that was 3 times greater than the rate among U.S.-born whites of U.S.-born parents. Questions about organized crime among immigrants also emerged during the Prohibition era. Limited data showed that comparatively few of the gangsters were foreign-born, but a high proportion of them were the sons of foreign-born parents reared in the slums of American cities. Recent research also shows that members of the second and third generations were much more likely than their first-generation counterparts to engage in substance use and to commit property and violent crimes, including homicide.

Although the second generation has an overall higher level of criminality than individuals among their foreign-born parents, the gap in criminality between the first and second generations varies across racial groups, locations, and types of offense. Recent research indicates that second-generation immigrants living in communities with high immigration concentrations tended to have lower levels of crime than those living in communities with low concentrations of immigrants. Crime rates among the second generation were also higher in areas with higher levels of poverty and unemployment. However, among white and Asian American adolescents, substance use increased in the second and third generations, but there was little change for violent and property delinquency across generations. On the other hand, among black adolescents, violent and property delinquency increased in the second and third generations, but substance use remained the same across three generations.

The overall high level of criminality among the second generation appears to be consistent with self-selection theory. The children of immigrants are not self-selected, and many are unable to overcome the challenges they encounter in their new homeland, including the lack of education and economic opportunities as well as culture conflicts, alienation, and exposure to deviant subculture. On the other hand, variations in the changing patterns of delinquency across locations and generations for different racial groups suggest the effects of acculturation and segmented assimilation on crime and delinquency. Increased levels of substance use among second-generation Asian and white youth suggest the result of acculturation and the integration of these youth into the mainstream society and the American middle class. Alcohol, which technically is a drug, has become a part of American culture, and moderate drinking is positively associated with incomes and education, which are higher among non-Hispanic whites and Asians than among blacks and Hispanics. On the contrary, the pattern of increasing violent and property delinquency among blacks and Hispanics in the second and third generations reflects the assimilation and integration of these youth into the adversarial subculture of disorganized and deprived neighborhoods. Blacks and Hispanics experience higher levels of poverty and residential segregation than their white and Asian counterparts. As the protective effects of traditional families, ethnic cultures, and ethnic identity diminish in the second and later generations, living in the slum facilitates the assimilation of second-generation black and Hispanic youth into the neighborhoods’ deviant subculture and increases their involvement in property and violent delinquency.

Crime Among Non-Citizens

The term non-citizens used in crime reports compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics refers to permanent residents, alien immigrants who are not naturalized or who do not have permanent resident status, foreign nationals who are in the country temporarily, and illegal immigrants (or undocumented immigrants). Crime committed by alien immigrants was included for the first time in the report titled “Report on Crime and the Foreign-Born,” issued by the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement (1931). Although not all alien immigrants entered the United States illegally, they were considered a different group from immigrants who had the legal status of permanent residents. The report indicated a considerable number of homicides (12%-25% of all offenses) committed by alien immigrants incarcerated in U.S. penal institutions. Although it was not possible for the investigation to compare homicide rates among aliens, naturalized immigrants, and native-born groups, the commission was concerned with the fact that a large proportion of incarcerated alien immigrants committed these serious crimes shortly after their arrival in the United States.

In recent years, confusions between legal immigrants and illegal immigrants often exist in debates about immigration and crime. There has been a tendency to lump these two groups into the general term immigrants. When illegal immigrants are distinguished from legal immigrants, the first group is often thought of being responsible for a large proportion of criminal behaviors committed in the United States. It has been argued that because of the risk of deportation, illegal immigrants are afraid to report crimes committed against them to the police, making official estimates of crime in the illegal immigrant community artificially low. No evidence exists, however, that reporting biases seriously affect estimates of the homicide victimization rates because, unlike other crimes, homicide cases need to have a body. In fact, at the national level, the homicides committed by illegal immigrants in the United States are reflected in the data just like homicides in other social groups. The view that illegal immigrants disproportionately engage in serious criminal behavior is not consistent with the fact that from 1994 to 2001, violent crime rates in the United States declined 34.2% and property crime declined 26.4%, while in the same period of time, the illegal immigrant population doubled to 12 million.

Available statistics from the Department of Justice indicate that the number of non-citizens in the federal criminal justice system increased for the period of 10 years from 1994 to 2003, but most non-citizens in federal prisons were foreign nationals who had been in the country temporarily. These non-citizen offenders were overwhelmingly charged with immigration offenses, including unlawful entry and reentry as well as smuggling, transporting, or harboring unlawful aliens. A smaller proportion of non-citizen offenders were charged with drug-related offenses. Because of their short period of time in the United States, they were less likely than their U.S.-citizen counterparts to have a known criminal history. Non-citizens have also been found to disproportionately engage in organized crime. According to Perry (2000), new immigrants from Latin America, Africa, Asia, and eastern Europe, particularly Russia, are all represented in organized-crime groups, but a substantial proportion of organized crime groups include foreign nationals who came to the United States with the explicit intent of expanding the domain and market of the organizations that already exist in their home countries. Asian syndicates tend to control much of the drug smuggling, prostitution, and other vice markets on the West Coast as well as parts of New York and New Jersey. Caribbean cartels dominate the drug trade in the southeast United States. Fraud, extortion, and burglary by Russian mafia are less localized but spread across the nation. Nigerians, operating in small cells, engage in some heroin smuggling, but they are more commonly specialized in massive fraud schemes. These criminal groups are able to exploit their bonds with current immigrants on the basis of their common place of origin as well as their cultural and social desire to reproduce the structures of hierarchy, complicity, and conspiracy of silence similar to those in their homelands.

Victimization Experienced by Immigrants

Crime committed by immigrants has been a topic for research for more than a century, but little attention has been paid to victimization experienced by immigrants. In recent years, research has begun to explore the extent and nature of crime against immigrants. Overall, immigrants tend to have a higher level of victimization and fear of crime as compared with the native-born, but there are differences across types of victimization.

Property Crime Victimization

Limited research suggests that immigrants do not experience higher property victimization rates than native-born individuals, except theft. Factors related to the risk of victimization, including being young and single, living in public housing, and living in an urbanized environment, are the same for immigrants and native-born persons. There is speculation, however, that the rates of property victimization experienced by immigrants may be much higher than what has been reported and that many crimes against immigrants go unreported because they are reluctant to come forward. Another reason is that many new immigrants are poor and live in high-crime neighborhoods, and they do not understand the environment risks in the United States.

Violent Crime Victimization

Most studies on victimization among immigrants have tended to focus on homicide. These studies have found that immigrants were at higher risk of becoming a homicide victim than native-born people. According to Martinez and Lee (2000), the rate of homicide victimization among the foreign-born was 23 per 100,000, compared with 18 per 100,000 among the native-born. Foreign-born Mariel Cubans in Miami experience a homicide victimization rate that exceeds the average city rate, but their homicide victimization rate was still lower than that among African Americans. Studies conducted by Sorenson and Shen (1996) and Sorenson and Lew (2000) have revealed similar findings. Immigrants in California were overrepresented in homicide victimization statistics. In 1990, immigrants constituted 23% of California’s residents and 33% of California’s homicide victims. There were variations across ethnic-racial groups, however. Among non-Hispanic whites, Hispanics, and blacks, immigrants had higher homicide rates than their native-born counterparts, but foreign-born Asians and native-born Asians had similar rates. In addition, patterns of victim-offender relationships in homicide victimizations among immigrants and natives also differed. Homicides by non-strangers were more common among the native-born than among the foreign-born, and the suspects of homicides against native-born victims were much more likely to be native-born, but suspects of immigrant homicides were more likely to be unknown. When the suspects were known, offenders of homicide against the foreign-born tended to also be foreign-born.

Victimization Among Undocumented Immigrants

Undocumented immigrants are at a heightened risk of victimization and have few outlets for dealing with crime. Violent acts against undocumented immigrants range from drive-by shootings to assaults and thefts. Among undocumented immigrants, day laborers, who search for work on a daily basis in a public and visible spaces, such as a busy street, sidewalk, storefront, or empty parking lot, encounter violence primarily from other day laborers; police; their employers; and, to a lesser extent, merchants and local residents. According to Valenzuela (2006), day laborers are particularly vulnerable to theft because most of them do not have bank accounts where they can deposit their earnings. Opening a bank account usually requires the provision of an individual taxpayer identification number, which most day laborers do not possess. As a result, they are usually paid in cash for their work. The fact that they often keep cash on their person, combined with their reluctance to call the police, which is often due to their unfamiliarity with U.S. institutions and their lack of legal documents, makes them an easy target. Day laborers are also exposed to violence at hiring sites that are controversial or particularly volatile as a result of community conflicts. Limited data on anti-immigrant violence indicate that the intensity and frequency of immigrant bashing vary across regions. Perry (2000) indicated that anti-immigrant violence tends to be most prevalent in areas with disproportionate shares of newly arrived immigrants, such as New York, New Jersey, Arizona, California, and Texas. In particular, in California, Arizona, and Texas both legal and illegal immigrants experience border violence, ranging from verbal taunts to rock throwing and shots fired by vigilantes and border patrol agents


Evidence from early and recent studies does not warrant an assertion about the causal effect of immigration on crime, or excessive criminality among any particular national group. Instead, research findings indicate a limited role of immigration in causing the crime problem. Immigrants are considered self-selected individuals who have low levels of criminal propensity; but high rates of arrest, conviction, and imprisonment among certain immigrant groups in certain locations and times are attributed to the large proportion of young males in these immigrant groups, culture conflicts, adverse social and economic conditions of resettlement locations, and negative effects of acculturation and assimilation. Thus, immigration resettlement programs that provide support to new immigrants to ease the process of acculturation, retain positive aspects of immigrants’ traditional cultures, and facilitate the integration of immigrants to the mainstream society can reduce crime and delinquency among young immigrants and members of the second generation. Limited research also shows no evidence that illegal immigrants disproportionately contribute to the crime problem in the United States. Most of the non-citizen offenders committed immigration offenses, and only a small proportion of them have crossed the U.S. border without permission. On the other hand, immigrants, especially illegal immigrants, have a higher risk of victimization and fear of crime but less recourse for the problem than do native-born individuals. An illegal status in particular contributes to the risk of victimization among undocumented immigrants. Because most of the studies on victimization among immigrants tend to focus on homicide, and because crime victimization among illegal immigrants has not been thoroughly studied, more research is needed to provide additional understandings of the nature, extent, and social contexts of victimization experienced by immigrants as well as crime and victimization among illegal immigrants.