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Immigrants and Crime: Are They Connected? A Century of Research Finds that Crime Rates for Immigrants are Lower than for the Native-Born

Numerous studies by independent researchers and government commissions over the past 100 years repeatedly and consistently have found that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes or be behind bars than the native-born.

A Century of Research Finds that Crime Rates for Immigrants are Lower than for the Native-Born

Numerous studies by independent researchers and government commissions over the past 100 years repeatedly and consistently have found that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes or be behind bars than the native-born. In the early decades of the 20th century, during the previous era of large-scale immigration, various federal commissions found lower levels of crime among the foreign-born than the native-born. More recently, the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform reached a similar conclusion in a 1994 report, as have academic researchers using data from the 1980, 1990, and 2000 Census; the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health; and the results of community studies in Chicago, San Diego, El Paso, and Miami.

The problem of crime in the United States is not “caused” or even aggravated by immigrants, regardless of their legal status. This is hardly surprising since immigrants come to the United States to pursue economic and educational opportunities not available in their home countries and to build better lives for themselves and their families. As a result, they have little to gain and much to lose by breaking the law. Undocumented immigrants in particular have even more reason to not run afoul of the law given the risk of deportation that their lack of legal status entails.

Violent and Property Crime Rates Fell as the Undocumented Population Doubled in Size

  • Although the undocumented immigrant population doubled to about 12 million from 1994 to 2005, the violent crime rate in the United States declined by 34.2% and the property crime rate fell by 26.4%. This decline in crime rates was not just national, it also occurred in border cities and other cities with large immigrant populations—such as San Diego, El Paso, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Miami.
  • The decline in crime rates was due in part to the success of new crime-fighting strategies such as community policing that have helped to build cooperative relationships between police and their communities. In immigrant communities, the success of these cooperative approaches to law enforcement depends on the willingness of crime victims and witnesses to come forward to the police regardless of their legal status or the legal status of their family members.
  • Although data released in September 2007 by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) indicates that the violent crime rate has increased for two consecutive years since 2004 (while the property crime rate has continued to fall), it remains to be seen if this is the beginning of a new, longer-term trend. Nevertheless, the fact that crime rates declined significantly over the previous ten years at the same time the undocumented population increased dramatically indicates that the recent upswing in violent crimes is not related to immigration.

Immigrants are Five Times Less Likely than the Native-Born to be in Prison

  • In 2000, among men age 18-39 (who comprise the vast majority of the U.S. prison population), the incarceration rate for the native-born (3.5%) was five times higher than the rate for immigrants (0.7%).
  • In California, the state with the greatest number of both undocumented and legal immigrants, the incarceration rate for native-born men age 18-39 (4.5%) was more than 11 times the rate for immigrants (0.4%).

Immigrants from Nations that Account for Most of the Undocumented Have Lower Incarceration Rates than the Native-Born

  • The incarceration rate also is lower for the immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala who account for the majority of undocumented immigrants in the United States and who tend to have low levels of education. In 2000, 0.7% of foreign-born Mexican men and 0.5% of foreign-born Salvadoran and Guatemalan men were in prison.
  • Similarly, 0.7% of foreign-born Mexican men without a high-school diploma and 0.6% of foreign-born Salvadoran and Guatemalan men without a high-school diploma were behind bars in 2000.

Focusing on the Immigrant Share of Inmates in Federal Prison Distorts the Real Story

  • In stereotyping immigrants as criminals, some anti-immigrant activists have pointed to estimates by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) that one quarter of all federal prisoners in the United States are “criminal aliens.” However, these estimates are highly misleading for two reasons:
  • Only about 8% of the 2.2 million persons behind bars in the United States at the end of 2005 were in federal prisons. The majority of inmates are in state prisons (57%) or local jails (34%).
  • Undocumented immigrants are likely to be transferred into the much smaller federal prison system simply on the basis of their immigration status even if they have not committed a criminal offense, or have committed an offense that is relatively minor.

The Skinny on the SCAPP Sound-Bite: SCAPP Data Cannot Be Verified

  • Anti-immigrant activists claim that data from the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP) shows undocumented immigrants are more prone to crime and incarceration than the native-born. However, SCAAP data is highly unreliable and likely over-counts the number of undocumented immigrant prisoners.
  • According to a an assessment of SCAAP data by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), “States/localities often do not know with certainty the citizenship and/or immigration status of inmates.” In fact, vetting by the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) of state and local data on supposedly undocumented inmates was only “able to identify, on average, about 30% of the submitted aliens as verified, with another 50% in the unknown category…” Many of the inmates classified as undocumented by states and localities were actually “naturalized U.S. citizens or lawfully in the U.S.”

Resources on Immigrants and Crime

Kristin F. Butcher & Anne Morrison Piehl, Why Are Immigrants’ Incarceration Rates So Low? Evidence on Selective Immigration, Deterrence, and Deportation (Working Paper 2005-19). Chicago: Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, November 2005.

Dillingham Immigration Commission, Abstracts of Reports of the Immigration Commission, vol. 2, 61st Congress, 3rd Session. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1911, pp. 159-221.

Matthew T. Lee, Crime on the Border: Immigration and Homicide in Urban Communities. New York: LFB Scholarly Publishing, 2003.

Ramiro Martínez, Jr. & Matthew T. Lee, “On Immigration and Crime,” in National Institute of Justice, Criminal Justice 2000: The Nature of Crime, vol. 1 (NCJ 182408). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, July 2000, pp. 485-524.

Ramiro Martinez, Jr. & Abel Valenzuela, Jr., eds., Immigration and Crime: Race, Ethnicity, and Violence. New York: New York University Press, 2006.

Eyal Press, “Do immigrants Make Us Safer?” New York Times Magazine, December 3, 2006.

Rubén G. Rumbaut, “Turning points in the transition to adulthood: Determinants of educational attainment, incarceration, and early childbearing among children of immigrants,” Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol. 28, no. 6, November 2005, pp. 1041-1086.

Rubén G. Rumbaut & Walter A. Ewing, The Myth of Immigrant Criminality and the Paradox of Assimilation: Incarceration Rates among Native and Foreign-Born Men. Washington, DC: Immigration Policy Center, American Immigration Law Foundation, Spring 2007.

Rubén G. Rumbaut, Roberto G. Gonzales, Golnaz Komaie & Charlie V. Morgan, “Debunking the Myth of Immigrant Criminality: Imprisonment Among First- and Second-Generation Young Men,” Migration Information Source ( Washington, DC, Migration Policy Institute, June 2006.

Robert J. Sampson, “Open Doors Don’t Invite Criminals: Is Increased Immigration Behind the Drop in Crime?” New York Times (Op-Ed), March 11, 2006.

Robert J. Sampson, Jeffrey D. Morenoff & Stephen Raudenbush, “Social Anatomy of Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Violence,” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 95, no. 2, February 2005, pp. 224-232.

Michael Tonry, ed., Ethnicity, Crime, and Immigration: Comparative and Cross Research Perspectives. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Published On: Sat, Oct 25, 2008 | Download File