As we have all heard, immigrants―legal and illegal alike―commit less crime than native-born American citizens. But the question as to whether immigrants commit more crime than native-born Americans is actually much messier than one would think.
Regarding illegal immigrants, a 2011 GAO study appears to show that contrary to various studies, illegal immigrants actually commit substantially more crime than native-born American citizens. That being said, legal immigrants definitely commit less.
But this comparison is an apples-to-oranges sort of affair for both legal and illegal immigration. Now don’t get me wrong, most legal immigrants are good people who just want to better their lives and that of their families. Many illegal immigrants fall into this category as well. But the United States’ infrastructure and civil services can only sustain so many newcomers at a time, particularly if they have relatively few skills. And with fast food joints switching to self-ordering kiosks, Wal-Mart announcing it will use autonomous “scanning robots,” Amazon opening stores with zero, count’em zero employees and mostly stagnant wage growth, it would seem rather unlikely that more low or unskilled labor is exactly what the United States needs right now.
But returning to the matter at hand, it doesn’t actually mean anything noteworthy to say that legal immigrants commit less crime than native born citizens. This is because, according to the Department of Homeland Security, the median age a legal immigrant becomes a lawful permanent resident is 32 years old.
As we all know, crime rates are not evenly divided amongst age groups. In fact, they are not even remotely evenly divided amongst age groups. For example, according to the Department of Justice, between 1980 and 2008 the percentage of homicides committed by each age group were as follows:
You’ll notice it’s skewed rather heavily toward the 18 to 34-year-old crowd. Those under the age of 25 committed 48.6 percent of all homicides. The majority of legal immigrants weren’t even in the country during that time of their life. And a further 76.6 percent of homicides were committed by those under the age of 35, which is just three years more than the median age a legal immigrant receives a green card.
A full 44.1 percent of immigrants who became lawful permanent residents did so after the age of 35.
And this relationship between age and murder is fairly consistent across a broad range of crimes. Younger people, particularly younger men, simply commit most of the crime.
Some studies try to control for this, but even they are fraught with difficulty. For example, a study by Bianca Bersani, Thomas Loughran and Alex Piquero that looked only at youths starting between the ages of 14 and 17 over a seven year period found that “Results show that first generation immigrants are less likely to be involved in serious offending and to evidence persistence in offending.” But the study only looked at 83 first generation immigrants in two counties. Another study by the pro-immigration American Immigration Council found that “roughly 1.6 percent of immigrant males age 18-39 are incarcerated, compared to 3.3 percent of the native-born.” Aside by the fact that it doesn’t split out the highly-vetted legal immigrants from unvetted illegal ones, the study is comparing native-born Americans who were in the country for all 21 years of that part of their life to immigrants who were only in the country for part of it. And again, legal immigrants age is skewed more toward the 30’s and less toward the more criminally-inclined 20’s than native-born since all native-born citizens spend their 20’s in the United States but only some immigrants do.
There are even more problems that permeate this entire analysis. As the Center for Immigration Studies notes, “For a variety of reasons, immigrants who are victims of crime may be less likely to report their victimization than native-born victims.” This would obviously be true for illegal immigrants who fear deportation. And there are further problems with survey methods regarding illegal immigrants. As the CIS study notes, “Prosecutors are known to sometimes drop pending charges against non-citizens once ICE indicates it will deport” and a total of 816,000 criminals were deported between 1999 and 2009. Thus, recidivism is not as big a problem for illegal immigrants as it is for native born. And recidivism rates are quite high. As the National Department of Justice points out, “Within five years of release, about three-quarters (76.6 percent) of released prisoners were rearrested.”
Finally, I would note that even young immigrants who leave their country of birth to the United States are unlikely to bring along with them any of the “bad crowds” some may have fallen into. But that says nothing about these immigrants’ children. All of these factors would help explain why the children of immigrants tend to have similar crime rates to American citizens. And given that the United States has a relatively high crime rate, at least as compared to other so-called industrialized nations, this should not exactly be a cause for celebration.
Again, it is important to stress that by far and away, legal immigrants are not criminals. Most illegals aren’t criminals either (other than the fact they broke the law to get into the United States, of course). But, quite obviously, most American citizens are also not criminals. The problem is that these surveys paint a misleading picture. Given the difference in age, the majority of the crime that immigrants would have committed would have been committed in the country they immigrated from not the country they emigrated to. While legal immigrants are vetted for this (if they were caught), illegals are not. Thus, valid comparisons between the two groups are far more difficult to analyze than is generally assumed.
Instead it should be a reminder of how statistics can be misconstrued. And in a time when polls show that whites, black and Hispanics all agree that legal immigration should be reduced, it should be another reason to be skeptical of those who demand ever more mass immigration into the United States.
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