Monday, June 26, 2006

Stereotypes wrong about immigrants, crime and history

The immigration debate frustrates me in part because a number of assumptions underlying arguments for "cracking down," whatever that means, seem patently false to me - factually false, not just a wrong interpretation - so it becomes difficult for the debate to reach a more productive stage. The claim that Muslim terrorists have already crept into the US across the southern border, for example, is one such myth I've discussed before - it's often claimed with such vehemence that when you deny it, the debate ends. But it's not true.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. Often though, the immigration debate seems virtually fact-free. Some of the polling seems outright delusional. I thought I'd explore in this post two common public assumptions I perceive as "myths" about immigration. I'll suggest what I think is a more fact-based analysis, and would request that you, gentle readers, proceed to poke holes either in my arguments or in my straw men, as you like. Maybe I'm missing something. Let me know.

Myth: Immigrants are more likely to commit crimes and our prisons are filling up with illegal immigrants.

Reality: Immigrants commit fewer crimes than U.S. natives across the board.

According to a
recent LBB report (pdf, p. 2), 5.3% of Texas inmates are Mexican nationals, with 1.03% coming from other Latin American countries. (Not all of those, by any stretch, came here illegally.) By contrast, the 2000 census estimated 13.9% of people living in Texas' are foreign born (roughly half immigrated legally). So that's actually a pretty small figure given the overblown rhetoric on the topic. In the big picture, it turns out, Texas' situation is typical - an analysis by the Migration Policy Institute found:
Data from the 5 percent Public Use Microsample (PUMS) of the 2000 census were used to measure the institutionalization rates of immigrants and natives, focusing on males 18 to 39, most of whom are in correctional facilities. Of the 45.2 million males age 18 to 39, three percent were in federal or state prisons or local jails at the time of the 2000 census — a total of over 1.3 million, in line with official prison statistics at that time.

Surprisingly, at least from the vantage of conventional wisdom, the data show the above hypotheses [that immigrants commit crimes more often] to be unfounded. In fact, the incarceration rate of the US born (3.51 percent) was four times the rate of the foreign born (0.86 percent). The foreign-born rate was half the 1.71 percent rate for non-Hispanic white natives, and 13 times less than the 11.6 percent incarceration rate for native black men ...

Of particular interest is the finding that the lowest incarceration rates among Latin American immigrants are seen for the least educated groups: Salvadorans and Guatemalans (0.52 percent), and Mexicans (0.70 percent). These are precisely the groups most stigmatized as "illegals" in the public perception and outcry about immigration.
As an aside, let's take a moment to look at that 11.6% figure for incarcerating black men 18-39 - all you can say is "Wow!". That's a huge number.

Just as striking, though, the analysis explodes stereotypes about immigrants posing a greater crime risk. It's just not true - they pose less of one.

Myth: We've restricted immigration for 200 years and now it's out of control.

Reality: Immigration restrictions are what's new and radical. They weren't part of the founding fathers' vision of America and are a historically recent, relatively modern phenomena.

Again, from the Migration Policy Institute: "Mexicans were able to enter the United States without quantitative limit prior to the 1965 amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act (implemented in 1968). And it was not until 1976 that Congress extended the strict, 20,000 per-country limit and preference system to countries in the Western Hemisphere, including Mexico."

From the nation's creation until 1875 there were no immigration restrictions at all for people moving to the United States. Anyone could come, and they did. From 1875 to 1918 the US restricted criminals and the infirm from entering, but not able-bodied workers. Per country limits weren't established until after World War I as a result of so-called nativist movements whose ideologies still animate much anti-immigrant hysteria on the right. As far as today's debate, as mentioned above, numerical limits on Latin American immigration didn't start until 1965, and have never been effectively enforced.

So two key myths surrounding immigration - that immigrants are more likely to be criminals and that some golden age existed in the past when Latin American immigration was restricted - just aren't true. There are a few more common assumptions about immigration I also find annoyingly fallacious, but those myth-busting polemics must wait for another day.


Anonymous said...

Iranians, who are Persian not Arabic, look like Anglos and could easily enter through the Canadian border. Why aren't the "security" freaks ranting about sealing off the Canadian border? Maybe that whole argument is disingenuous, at best. Maybe those folks just don't like living next to brown people.

Anonymous said...

For the sake of accuracy, one should mention that the 1875 legislation also restricted immigration by Chinese "coolies," so it did have a bit of a racist bent. Or "nativist" to use your word. Otherwise, I think that history's pretty much right.

OP said...

Grits, I agree with about half of what you blogged about this time. However, 9.36% (15,963) of California's prison population have active USINS holds, most of them illegal aliens from Mexico. That figure is actually deceptive because thousands more in the system have "potential" holds because the INS often doesn't get around to placing active holds on many of them until they get close to their release dates. Many of the most violent are never counted becasue they are serving life sentences.

I'm sure the figures in other border states are no different. That's a lot of crime and a lot of victims regardless of how it compares with the native born criminal population.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@OSAPian: "That's a lot of crime and a lot of victims regardless of how it compares with the native born criminal population."

Perhaps, but it means that deporting undocumented immigrants wholesale would be an ineffecient and counterproductive way to reduce crime, because they're LESS likely to commit crimes than other people. Any effort to reduce crime among the native population would do more to enhance public safety, because that's who's committing more crimes.

There may well be reasons to oppose immigration - the false claim that immigrants are more likely to commit crimes, however, simply isn't one that withstands scrutiny.

OP said...

Grits, agreed.

But illegal immigrants who are convicted of crimes should be deported wholesale after serving their jail or prison terms and immediately if placed on probation. Counties that prohibit probation departments from contacting INS in these acses should forfeit receiving any federal funding for law enforcement.

Reentry into the USA after being deported after a criminal conviction already is a federal felony with serious prison attached and that should be enforced.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@ OSAPian: Deporting those convicted of serious crimes makes sense. More effective, still, would be to provide documentation to everyone coming in so we could screen out those few with criminal backgrounds, etc. Making immigration illegal for hundreds of thousands easily masks the movements of the minority who come here to commit crimes.

The coyote industry exists because of volume - it wouldn't be nearly so easy to cross the border if the only people paying to do so illegally were outright bandits, not average working people. Ironically, IMO by easing restrictions on workers we would make it easier to screen out criminals before they ever got here to commit new crimes.

And thanks, anonymous, for the correct and appropriate clarification about restrictions on "coolies," which probably was a if not the primary incentive for the legislation.

Anonymous said...

As far as I can tell, ICE puts detainers on everyone in TDCJ-ID (felons) with a foreign birthplace. Removal proceedings (deportation) take place in Huntsville on a regular basis, and those who receive removal orders get picked up by the feds when they discharge their sentences. Due to their felony convictions, the feds have no trouble deporting the majority of them.