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Migrants Reduce Violent Crime


Yes, you read that correctly.

The more immigration you have, the lower rates of violent crime are.

Yes, this is exactly the opposite of what you hear from the conservatives and the mass media.

Incidents where an illegal immigrant has done something violent and terrible make headline stories.

Our president refers to Central American migrants as “bad hombres”. There are frequent scare stories about Central America’s MS-13, supposedly the bloodiest criminal gang in history and one that is filled with migrants.

(I don’t know who the bloodiest criminal gang in history ever was. My first nomination might be the Frog Squad which operated in Sumatra in the 1960’s. Their leader, Anwar Congo, personally garroted hundreds of people. His followers killed thousands more. None of the stories I have ever heard of Central American gang violence come remotely close to what was playing out in Indonesia in the 1960’s.)

Given the horrible gangs and criminals that supposedly exist in Central America, we supposedly have to reduce migration to our country to keep the bad guys from putting the lives of our citizens in danger.

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The argument that increased migration increases rates of violent crime is a myth. It is neither supported factually, nor does it make sense logically.

Ramiro Martinez and Jacob Stowell looked at homicide rates in San Antonio, a city that has experienced extensive Hispanic migration. While Mexican and Central American immigration has increased, the homicide rate has fallen. When they looked at neighborhoods in San Antonio (technically, census tracts because that is how the data is reported), neighborhoods with high concentrations of immigrants had the same homicide rates as other neighborhoods. Neighborhoods with many immigrants had lower rates of gang homicides. Ironically, whites were safer in high immigration neighborhoods than they were in neighborhoods where immigrants were scarcer.

What was the major determinant of homicide rates in San Antonio? Poverty. The poorer the neighborhood, the more homicide.

The authors then repeated the analysis with Miami and later on with a third co-author in San Diego. In Miami, immigrants reduced homicide rates overall. As in San Antonio, whites were safer in high immigration neighborhoods. In San Diego, they were able to look at increases in immigration over time. At the neighborhood level, increasing the level of immigration made homicide rates go down.

Martinez and Stowell checked the robustness of their findings by looking at the United States as a whole. They compared U.S. counties with and without high rates of immigration. They found similar rates of homicide in both types of county. What was the big determinant of homicide rates in U.S. counties? Poverty.

Just in case you think the Martinez team is biased, the same finding shows up in the work of other scholars. Garth Davies and Jeffrey Fagan looked at neighborhood differences in homicides in New York City. 

Immigration lowered both total neighborhood crime and violent neighborhood crime. (And drug crime and property crime too, while we are at it.)

You don’t like any of these studies? Check out the literature reviews in these articles. They all list large numbers of pre-existing studies that all had similar findings.

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Why are immigrants less likely to commit crimes?

Let’s start with illegal immigrants first.

If you sneak into this country illegally, and you are stopped by a police officer, the odds are high that you will be sent back to your home country. If you paid a fortune to a coyote and put yourself in physical danger in order to get into the United States in the first place, why would you want to risk all that?  Illegal immigrants tend to obey the law because they don’t want to attract adverse attention from law enforcement authorities.

However, there are reasons that both legal and illegal immigrants tend to be law abiding. My discussion here closely follows that of Davies and Fagan.

Immigrants tend to have more entrepreneurial initiative than do people who stay in their home country. It takes ambition, planning and personal willpower to summon the initiative to move to another country. It takes drive to make the effort to make the trip, learn another language, learn the customs and habits of a nation that is not your own and learn a trade that may be different from what you practiced in your home country. It literally takes get up and go to get up and go. Both illegal and legal migrants tend to be solidly immersed in ambitious occupational or educational programs that have them working hard, studying or doing something that would economically advance themselves. Some of these legitimate jobs are far more lucrative than crime. Nearly all of those legitimate jobs would be more secure than crime.

Furthermore, immigrants tend to be highly immersed in social networks. They live with family members or people from their hometown. Spaces are small so everyone lives right on top of each other. The immigrants socialize with each other. They go to church to with each other. They engage in community organizations with each other. They watch sports with each other. They take care of each other’s children. Often as not they work together. Often their company or sector is filled with people from their home country. Think about the thriving Cuban-American economic enclave in Miami. Other ethnic groups may not be quite as prosperous as the Cubans but they still have strong within-group economic ties. Houston has vibrant economic sectors for Hondurans, Nigerians, Ghanaians, Vietnamese and Guatemalans.

Tight social networks restrain deviance. Isolation leads to substance abuse, emotional problems, hostility, and aggression. Having someone else in close quarters can lead to correction and discipline when one starts acting violent or weird. Think of the behavior problems of upper-class teenagers with two working parents, gigantic homes that offer lots of privacy, and the money to purchase whatever dangerous substances they want. Poor immigrants all living together are less free to commit vice and less free to spend money that the group needs for other things.

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Fear of migrants is one of the biggest problems we face in America today. Some of that fear is economic. Migrants do compete economically with the native born. Some of the fear reflects unfamiliarity with other cultures. Just what are those Moslems doing in that mosque over there?

But economic competition and cultural difference are not the same as representing murderous threats. Having migrants in one’s town does not require that one fear for one’s life and does not require that one go out and purchase a gun.

In the meantime, migrants’ entrepreneurial activity produces vast amounts of employment. They start firms. They hire people. Everyone gets rich.

Migrants also contribute to the tax base. Being non-citizens, they are not entitled to a wide variety of government benefits. However, they do pay taxes just like everyone else. (Even if the migrants are dirt poor, they pay sales taxes. More successful ones pay business taxes, income taxes and property taxes.) So migrants are indirectly subsidizing everyone else’s government benefits by putting more into the government pot than they take out.

This includes helping to pay for our police forces.

This is just as well, because we need to pay for police to protect us from criminals, most of whom happen to be native born.

For More Information

The main Martinez and Stowell article is titled “Extending Immigration and Crime Studies: National Implications and Local Settings.” It can be found in the May 2012 Issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences.

That same issue also contains the Davies and Fagan article on New York, “Crime and Enforcement in Immigrant Neighborhoods: Evidence From New York City.”

The Martinez, Stowell and Lee study of San Diego “Immigration and Crime in an Era of Transformation: A Longitudinal Analysis of Homicides in San Diego Neighborhoods 1980-2000” can be found in Criminology 2010, Volume 48 Number 3.

For a book length reading on what is good about migration, see Fariborz Ghadar’s Becoming American: Why Immigration is Good for Our Nation’s Future.

For a quickie four pager on the economic benefits of migration see the OECD’s “Is Migration Good for the Economy?”

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