Are Immigrants Crime Prone? A Multifaceted Investigation of the Relationship between Immigration and Crime in Two Eras

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Are immigrants crime prone? In America, this question has been posed since the turn of the 20th century and more than 100 years of research has shown that immigration is not linked to increasing crime rates. Nevertheless, as was true more than a century ago, the myth of the criminal immigrant continues to permeate public debate. In part this continued focus on immigrants as crime prone is the result of significant methodological and theoretical gaps in the extant literature. Five key limitations are identified and addressed in this research including: (1) a general reliance on aggregate level analyses, (2) the treatment of immigrants as a homogeneous entity, (3) a general dependence on official data, (4) the utilization of cross-sectional analyses, and (5) nominal theoretical attention.

Two broad questions motivate this research. First, how do the patterns of offending over the life course differ across immigrant and native-born groups? Second, what factors explain variation in offending over time for immigrants and does the influence of these predictors vary across immigrant and native-born individuals? These questions are examined using two separate datasets capturing information on immigration and crime during two distinct waves of immigration in the United States. Specifically, I use the Unraveling Juvenile Delinquency data and subsequent follow-ups to capture early 20th century immigration and crime, while contemporary data come from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, 1997.

Three particularly salient conclusions are drawn from this research. First, patterns of offending (i.e., prevalence, frequency, persistence and desistance) are remarkably similar for native-born and immigrant individuals. Second, although differences are observed when examining predictors of offending for native-born and immigrant individuals, they tend to be differences in degree rather than kind. That is, immigrants and native-born individuals are influenced similarly by family, peer, and school factors. Finally, these findings are robust and held when taking into account socio-historical context, immigrant generation, immigration nationality group, and crime type. In sum, based on the evidence from this research, the simple answer to the question of whether immigrants are crime prone is no.