The myth of im­mi­grants and crime

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OPINION - Es­ther J. Cepeda Colum­nist Es­ther Cepeda’s email ad­dress is es­ther­j­cepeda@wash­post.com. Follow her on Twit­ter, @ es­ther­j­cepeda.

De­pend­ing on the mood of the coun­try, im­mi­grants are ei­ther wel­come ad­di­tions to a melt­ing pot that al­ways needs youth, or they’re a pox upon our coun­try, con­tribut­ing to vi­o­lence, crime and dis­ease. But re­search dat­ing back at least a cen­tury un­equiv­o­cally shows that the for­eign-born are in­volved in crime at sig­nif­i­cantly lower rates than their U.S.-born peers.

“We don’t al­ways ex­press these strong lev­els of ap­pre­hen­sion or anx­i­ety to­ward im­mi­grants. Rather, these feel­ings build as the im­mi­grant pop­u­la­tion grows,” said Bianca E. Bersani, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Mas­sachusetts and the lead au­thor on a new pa­per in­ves­ti­gat­ing the link be­tween im­mi­gra­tion and crime. “There is an ebb and flow that co­in­cides with in­creas­ing and de­creas­ing lev­els of im­mi­gra­tion to the U.S.”

Alex R. Piquero, a crim­i­nol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Texas at Dal­las and Bersani’s co-au­thor added, “Im­mi­grants sim­ply do not com­mit crimes at the rates that peo­ple think they do. The anx­i­eties are in large part be­cause im­mi­grants are, to na­tives, ‘not like us.’ They bring dif­fer­ent cul­tures, re­li­gions, lan­guage and de­mo­graph­ics than what many are used to and that fright­ens us and con­trib­utes to a per­va­sive view, ab­sent any em­pir­i­cal data, that im­mi­grants bring prob­lems and take our jobs. That is sim­ply not con­sis­tent with the facts, espe­cially when it comes to crime.”

Bersani and Piquero’s data anal­y­sis re­in­forced pre­vi­ous re­search show­ing that the for­eign-born pose no unique crim­i­nal threat. But they went a step fur­ther and an­swered the ques­tion: “How can we know the re­spon­dents didn’t lie about their in­ter­ac­tions with law en­force­ment?”

Mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion is a prob­lem with all re­search that re­lies on peo­ple self-re­port­ing in­for­ma­tion that may put them in a neg­a­tive light. And in the case of im­mi­grants -both le­gal and unau­tho­rized -- it’s well-known that they some­times don’t trust, or un­der­stand, the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem.

But when Bersani and Piquero set out to learn whether im­mi­grants’ lower lev­els of crime (com­pared with first- and sub­se­quent-gen­er­a­tion U.S.-born peo­ple) might be in­flu­enced by dif­fer­ing crime re­port­ing prac­tices be­tween these gen­er­a­tions, they found that im­mi­grants do not have a greater ten­dency to un­der­re­port their of­fenses.

Their anal­y­sis of data that in­cluded both in­di­vid­ual self-re­ports of crime and of­fi­cial records found “no ev­i­dence that for­eign-born, first-gen­er­a­tion im­mi­grants un­der­re­port their ar­rest his­tory. In fact, when ev­i­dence of di­ver­gence ex­ists, it is in the di­rec­tion of im­mi­grants over­re­port­ing ar­rests.”

Per­va­sive myths die hard, and the authors have al­ready fielded in­quiries about whether their re­search dif­fer­en­ti­ates be­tween le­gal and unau­tho­rized im­mi­grants.

Though over­stay­ing a visa or en­ter­ing the United States without au­tho­riza­tion is a civil of­fense -- not a crim­i­nal one -- il­le­gal im­mi­grants are of­ten viewed as be­ing defini­tively linked to vi­o­lence and crime.

Piquero, the only one of the pair of re­searchers who is the child of im­mi­grants, told me: “Many peo­ple think we are ab­solv­ing il­le­gal im­mi­grants be­cause they be­lieve that im­mi­grants and il­le­gal im­mi­grants are one and the same, and they are not.” The science and data rule the day. Any per­son, re­gard­less of their de­mo­graphic, would have ar­rived at the same con­clu­sion that we did.”

As Bersani noted, the fer­vor with which neg­a­tive as­ser­tions are made against im­mi­grants varies de­pend­ing on the cir­cum­stances.

Ac­cord­ing to the Pew Re­search Cen­ter, growth and dis­per­sion of the U.S. Latino pop­u­la­tion has slowed since 2007, and im­mi­gra­tion from Latin Amer­ica has cooled even as Latino fer­til­ity rates have fallen. Im­mi­grants from China and In­dia -- who, for bet­ter or worse, carry with them the “model mi­nor­ity” halo -- are out­pac­ing those from Mex­ico.

Maybe this de­mo­graphic shift to an even more di­verse group of new im­mi­grants can help re­verse some peo­ple’s will­ful in­sis­tence on see­ing all im­mi­grants in a neg­a­tive light.

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