MADISON, Wis. — Undocumented immigrants are often used as a scapegoat for any number of crimes, societal problems, or political complaints. Now, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison find undocumented immigrants are much less likely to engage in criminal activities than U.S. citizens.
These conclusions are based on a first-of-its-kind analysis of Texas arrest and conviction records. According to data spanning from 2012 to 2018, U.S. citizens are twice as likely to be arrested for violent felonies. They’re also two-and-a-half times more likely to be arrested for a drug felony and over four times more likely to face arrest for felony property crimes.
In total, researchers had unprecedented access to data on more than 1.8 million arrests in Texas.
Growing evidence of who really commits crimes
Prior research projects have come to similar conclusions in the past, but this new study separates itself from the rest by actually matching specific crimes to the immigration status of the perpetrator. Prior projects had only been able to compare crime rate trends to immigration trends.
“It’s like asking if crime rates rise when unemployment goes up. That’s not the same as asking if unemployed people commit more crimes,” explains study leader Michael Light, a UW-Madison professor of sociology, in a university release. “Those are related questions, but not the same question.”
Texas keeps such careful track of immigrants in reference to arrest records because of the federal government’s Secure Communities Program. That program demands the exchange of criminal immigrant information, described as a way to ensure criminals are deported before committing another crime in the United States.
Of course, local law enforcement inevitably encounter undocumented immigrants, in many cases more often than ICE or federal officials. Due to the SCP, whenever anyone is arrested and processed in Texas, their biometric information is sent to federal databases. This quickly gives immigration officers a heads up if the new arrest is a non-citizen.
Do deportations of undocumented immigrants lower crime?
Within its first four years, Secure Communities led to over 200,000 deportations. Curiously, however, two recent independent studies conclude the program hasn’t actually helped reduce crime.
“If the plan was to make communities safer, to reduce the likelihood of, say, a felony violent assault in these communities through deportation, it did not deliver on that promise,” Light says. “Our results help us understand why that is. The population of people we deported simply were not a unique criminal risk. Removing them isn’t going to make you all that safer.”
Study authors can’t say why undocumented immigrants don’t commit all that much crime, but do point to prior findings that suggest all first generation immigrants tend to turn to crime less often.
“They have a tremendous incentive to avoid criminal wrongdoing. The greatest fear among undocumented immigrants is getting in legal trouble that leads to deportation,” Light adds.
A question of character
Light also says it’s worth considering just how difficult and risky it is to enter the United States illegally.
“There’s lots of opportunity to commit crimes in Mexico and Venezuela and other places people are emigrating from,” Light theorizes. “The argument is that many people who want to immigrate are selected on attributes like ambition to achieve, to find economic opportunities, and those types of things aren’t very highly correlated with having a criminal propensity.”
“The conversation about undocumented immigration should be informed by the best empirical evidence,” he concludes. “If somebody says we know undocumented immigrants increase the crime rate, well, I’d say the weight of evidence is not in their favor.”
The study is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.