Do Immigrants Make U.S. Safer?

What do the safest big cities in the United States have in common? Rudy Giuliani knows, but he's not likely to say so, at least not now. Why? Because the answer, in a word, is immigrants.

When Giuliani was the law-and-order mayor of New York City, Mr. Zero Tolerance was more than happy to tolerate immigrants, including those who entered or stayed in the United States illegally. As conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks pointed out recently, Giuliani "once went overboard and declared, 'If you come here and you work hard and you happen to be in an undocumented status, you're one of the people who we want in this city.'"

This wasn't so much altruism or "immoderate centrism," as some of Giuliani's fans suggest, or even a sentimental reaction to his own family's (somewhat controversial) immigrant roots. It was purely practical. About 38 percent of New York City's population was born outside the United States of America, and while most are in the country legally, many are not. (If they can't register their identities anyplace with the city or state government, they can't be counted accurately. And of course they can't register with the feds without risking deportation.) What's certain is that first-generation immigrants have played almost as important a role in making New York more secure as the vaunted hard line on crime taken by Mr. Zero T.

The "Safest City" awards published a few days ago by Congressional Quarterly back up this kind of thinking. Among the top 10 with populations over 500,000, four are in Texas: Fort Worth, San Antonio, Austin and the border town of El Paso, which is the second-safest big city in the country. Two are in California: San Jose and San Diego, which, again, is right across the line from Mexico. The safest city of all is Honolulu, with its very diverse population, while New York City ranks fourth. (New York City also looks as if it will have fewer murders this year than at any time since reliable statistics became available, in 1963.) "I would say, if you want to be safe, move to an immigrant city," Robert J. Sampson, chairman of the sociology department at Harvard University, told me on the phone this afternoon.

Nationwide, over the last 15 years we've seen the largest wave of immigration, in absolute numbers, both legal and illegal, ever to reach the shores of the United States. Foreigners fresh off the boat, so to speak, now represent almost 13 percent of the U.S. population, which is almost as high in percentage terms as during the late 19th century. According to a report from the nonprofit Immigration Policy Center earlier this year, the estimated undocumented population has doubled, to 12 million, since 1994. Yet the violent crime rate nationwide has declined more than 34 percent during the same period, while crimes against property dropped more than 26 percent.

Yes, these facts do run against conventional wisdom, which holds that newly arrived foreigners are essentially, even intrinsically, dangerous. A recent study showed that 75 percent of Americans think "more immigrants cause higher crime rates." Full stop. A single sensational incident involving illegal aliens, like the execution-style murder last summer of three students in Newark, N.J., can send shudders through people already nervous about all the newcomers. And that feeling is especially strong in less urbanized parts of the country like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, which are vital to presidential contenders. Certainly in South Carolina, where I spend part of each year, laborers from Mexico seem to be changing the whole tenor of daily life. And then, of course, there's the question of terrorism, which, we all remember, flew in from abroad. Yet if ever there was an issue where popular thinking is misleading, it's the dangers posed by new immigrants.

On the terror front, for instance, after Giuliani left office in 2002 his successor, Michael Bloomberg, and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly drew on the city's incredible diversity to help create one of the most effective law enforcement and counterterror operations in the country. The NYPD has about 600 linguists: native speakers of Urdu, Dari, Bengali, Arabic (in several dialects), Russian, Gaelic, Spanish and more. The class that graduated from the police academy a year ago included almost 300 foreign-born cadets from more than 50 different countries who have a feel for the street in just about every imaginable immigrant neighborhood.

But it's the overall social impact of immigration on crime that is most important. "Almost everyone who has examined this issue and is not an ideologue has come to the same conclusion," says James Lynch, a distinguished professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in Manhattan. "In the United States immigrants engage in common law crime at rates lower than the native population." And it's not just that newly arrived immigrants are less likely to be part of an urban nightmare, it's that they bring their own positive dreams. According to Sampson, there's "a growing consensus" that "immigration revitalizes cities around the country." Instead of becoming empty urban wastelands, marginal neighborhoods fill up with new immigrants who want to build their futures and wind up building the economy.

Hillary Clinton understands all this, of course. The immigration wave, including the flood of illegals, began when her husband Bill was president. But it shouldn't be surprising that the Democratic senator from New York, as presidential candidate, sounded so confused when asked in a recent debate about an abortive plan by New York's Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer to give driver's licenses to otherwise undocumented foreigners. The questions were basically "are you for or against." But of course the subtext is much more complicated. If first-generation immigrants are helping to make cities more secure, then doesn't it make sense to have as much information about them as possible? Or is it smarter to make them live as far outside the law as possible? Clinton couldn't seem to decide, perhaps because to make her point honestly she'd have to convince 75 percent of Americans their fundamental assumptions are wrong. People just know, or think they know, that immigration and crime are part of the same package.

So the debates go on, with every discussion of illegal aliens ever more alienated from the facts at hand.