How Immigrants Actually Reduce Crime

The Walled-Off World - Israel to Mexico

Last Friday, supporters of Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer posted an amusing little video on YouTube showing a Kermit-ish frog singing about the need to read and then going into a funk after screening clips of Obama administration officials admitting they opined on the recent Arizona immigration bill without having, well, read it.

Fair enough. You have to take a good look at the law to appreciate how truly sinister it really is. But Brewer and her supporters need to do their homework, too. A little basic research would have shown them that big cities with large immigrant populations are safer places to live.

This is not just a matter of random correlation being mistaken for causation. A new study by sociologist Tim Wadsworth of the University of Colorado at Boulder carefully evaluates the various factors behind the statistics that show a massive drop in crime during the 1990s at a time when immigration rose dramatically. In a peer-reviewed paper appearing in the June 2010 issue of Social Science Quarterly, Wadsworth argues not only that "cities with the largest increases in immigration between 1990 and 2000 experienced the largest decreases in homicide and robbery," which we knew, but that after considering all the other explanations, rising immigration "was partially responsible."

To deny that reality and ignore its implications is likely to make life more dangerous all over America, diverting resources away from the fight against violent crime and breaking down the hard-won trust between cops and the communities where they work. Several police chiefs tried to make exactly this point Wednesday on a visit to Washington to talk about the Arizona law, due to take effect in July, and the bad precedent it sets. "This is not a law that increases public safety. This is a bill that makes it much harder for us to do our jobs," said Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck. "Crime will go up if this becomes law in Arizona or in any other state."

This is not an ideological question, although some of the law's supporters, including some cops, would like to turn it into one. Experience has shown that when immigrants think they'll be nailed for immigration offenses, they stop cooperating with law enforcement. The intelligence needed to find and fight hard-core criminals, whatever their immigration status, will be harder to get. People who feel themselves singled out for discrimination will withdraw more and more into ghettos, increasingly marginalized from American life instead of integrated into it. Smart cops understand all this perfectly well.

But of course if you're using frog puppets as part of a know-nothing campaign to convince people that immigrants bring crime to the United States like rats carrying the plague, you're not going to want to listen to reason, and you'll ignore facts like the just-released preliminary statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation Uniform Crime Report, which appear to line up with Wadsworth's research. What's so striking about them, he told me in an e-mail, is not just that the FBI numbers provide anecdotal support for his analysis, but that they are "entirely inconsistent with the claims of politicians and the general public sentiment."

Let's start with Arizona.

Something scary is going on there, and it's not just politics. It's gangs that smuggle people and drugs and that sometimes settle scores among themselves by murdering and kidnapping. Most of those involved are of Mexican origin, which is why the Obama administration is sending 1,200 National Guard troops to the Southwest to get more "boots on the ground" near the border. But nobody's going to be manning a Great Wall of Arizona. The troop deployment, along with a request for a half billion dollars in new funding, aims at building what the office of Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords describes as "a multi-layered effort to target illicit networks trafficking in people, drugs, illegal weapons, and money." Notice the focus is not on the illegal immigrants, who are more likely to be victims than perpetrators.

That's a distinction that raving pundits on the right have always had trouble making when they talk about an "illegal-alien crime wave." And even some politicians who know better have been happy to stoke the fire. Thus Governor Brewer told Fox News and anyone else who'd listen, "We've been inundated with criminal activity. It's just—it's been outrageous." Arizona's Sen. John McCain said last month that the failure to secure the border with Mexico "has led to violence—the worst I have ever seen." The president of the Arizona Association of Sheriffs, Paul Babeu of Pinal County, claims, "Crime is off the chart in this state."

What the FBI chart actually shows is that the incidence of violent crime in Arizona declined dramatically in the last two years. After a spike in 2006 and 2007, the number in Phoenix dropped to 10,465 in 2008 and to 8,730 in 2009, which is lower than it was six years ago. Murders, which hit a high of 234 in 2006, dropped to 167 in 2008 and 122 in 2009. (Some lesser crimes may go unreported, especially if people are scared to talk to the cops, but police statistics only rarely miss a murder.)

The Phoenix authorities should be congratulated. But as Phoenix Police Chief Jack Harris said last month, Brewer's immigration law is just going to make his job more difficult. "It takes officers away from doing what our main core mission is, and that is to make our community safe, and instead tells us to become immigration officers and enforce routine immigration laws that I do not think we have the authority to even enforce," Harris told the local Fox station, KSAZ. If you want to keep preventing violent crime, you do not waste your limited manpower on job-seeking "illegals."

Did I already make that point? It bears repeating. The FBI numbers show that in the midst of the supposed crime wave, many other cities in the Southwest have had declines in crime similar to Phoenix. El Paso, Texas, just across the Rio Grande from a ferocious drug war in Juarez, where some 5,000 people have been murdered in recent years, saw almost no change in its own crime rate and remains one of the safest cities in the country, with only 12 murders last year. San Antonio saw violent crime drop from 9,699 incidents to 7,844; murders from 116 to 99. Compare that with a city like Detroit, which is a little bigger than El Paso and much smaller than San Antonio—and not exactly a magnet for job-seeking immigrants. Its murder rate went up from 323 in 2008 to 361 in 2009.

Indeed, some law-enforcement officers in Arizona's own border towns scoff at the new law. The murder of Cochise County rancher Robert Krentz by a suspected illegal in March, which added fuel to the furor behind the Arizona law, was the exception rather than the rule. According to The Arizona Republic, which cited the Border Patrol, "Krentz is the only American murdered by a suspected illegal immigrant in at least a decade within the agency's Tucson sector, the busiest smuggling route among the Border Patrol's nine coverage regions along the U.S.-Mexican border."

Most of the immigrants are headed deeper into the country, of course, including New York City, which has seen its Mexican population rise by an astounding rate of almost 58 percent since 2000, for a total of almost 300,000 by 2007. And crime rates? New York City, with a population of 8.5 million, some 40 percent of whom were born outside the United States, is one of those jurisdictions that prohibit police officers from questioning people about their immigration status. Its murder rate plunged from 2,245 in 1990 to 471 in 2009.

So, yes, there are pretty compelling data to support the argument that immigrants as such—even presumably "illegal" immigrants—do not make cities more dangerous to live in. But what mechanism about such immigration makes cities safer? Robert J. Sampson, head of the sociology department at Harvard, has suggested that, among other things, immigrants move into neighborhoods abandoned by locals and help prevent them from turning into urban wastelands. They often have tighter family structures and mutual support networks, all of which actually serve to stabilize urban environments. As Sampson told me back in 2007, "If you want to be safe, move to an immigrant city."

What other variables may be at work driving crime down? The ones most often cited are rising levels of incarceration, changes in drug markets, and the aging of the overall population. The authors of Freakonomics argue that the big drop in violent crime during the 1990s was a direct result of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in 1973 and reduced by millions the pool of unwanted children who might have grown up to be criminals a generation later. Still, Wadsworth's research and the recent FBI data reinforce the judgment that the vast majority of immigrants make our cities safer, especially when police know how to work with them, not against them. To blame all immigrants for the crimes committed by a few, and give the cops the job of chasing them for immigration offenses instead of focusing resources on catching the real bad guys, is simply nuts.

But that message just isn't getting through. Polls continue to show that the vast majority of Americans think immigrants cause crime. Maybe what's needed is a YouTube video of a winsome frog puppet getting us to repeat after him: "Immigrants don't kill people, criminals do."

Christopher Dickey is the author of six books, most recently Securing the City: Inside America's Best Counterterror Force—the NYPD.