Even as researchers find that the foreign-born commit fewer crimes than their native-born peers, the perception that immigrants are uniquely crime prone permeates public and political discourse.
Of course the warnings and anxiety about "criminal immigrants" are nothing new. At the turn of the 20th century, nativists worried that the large numbers of Polish, Italians and Irish migrating to the United States would taint the bloodstream. Though the countries of origin of today's migrant groups have shifted, a similar concern reverberates: Are immigrants bringing with them tendencies to offend, victimize and profit from the hard work of U.S. citizens?
The findings exonerating the foreign-born are equally consistent. A sizable body of scientific research conducted by criminologists, sociologists and economists indicates that: Neighborhoods with more immigrants have lower rates of crime; an influx of immigrants has been shown to decrease crime; and that foreign-born individuals commit less crime than their U.S.-born peers.
These patterns hold not just for minor offenses, but also for serious violent crimes. Some have suggested that immigrants may actually revitalize communities and lessen crime.
Yet there may be a problem with the scientific record: Many of these studies rely on self-reported survey data. These surveys ask individuals to respond to questions such as how often they have stolen goods, sold drugs or severely hurt someone in the last year.
One major criticism of the research on immigration and crime is that it does not account for the possibility that immigrants have a distinct incentive to lie. Unlike their U.S.-born peers, immigrants may conceal their offenses — even on anonymous surveys — for fear of deportation. They may also lack a deep understanding about the U.S. criminal justice system and not realize they've broken laws.
In a recent study, we investigated whether immigrants have a greater tendency to underreport their offenses than native-born Americans. Over a seven-year period, a large sample of adolescent offenders were tracked and interviewed 10 times. At each interview they were asked if they had been arrested. We then compared these self-reports with official arrest records to check for accuracy.
Bottom line: We found no evidence supporting the idea that immigrants are especially prone to hide their criminal behavior. Over the seven years of the study, immigrants accurately self-reported their arrests 87% of the time, which is slightly more accurate, though not statistically different, than their native-born (86%) and second-generation (84%) peers. The finding that the foreign-born commit less crime than their U.S.-born peers is not a product of differences in reporting practices across these groups.
As the public's views on immigration policy trend toward support for increased pathways to citizenship, the rhetoric on the immigrant-crime nexus appears particularly resilient to scientific evidence to the contrary. Interest in the rhetoric-reality divide is more than an academic puzzle as exposure to these messages exacerbates fears, fuels anxieties and provokes reactionary responses that are not well conceived, like mass deportation plans or broad stroke exclusionary practices.
Pundits and policymakers should drop the fear-based tactics and focus on understanding why, despite various disadvantages, immigrants remain less likely to be involved in crime than native-born Americans. We know that many immigrants uphold cultural traditions that prioritize the family over the individual; there's also emerging research showing that immigrants have a stronger faith in the legitimacy of the criminal justice system than many Americans of long-standing. Perhaps these beliefs, and the people who hold them, are worth embracing.
Bianca E. Bersani is associate professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts