New Research Finds that Immigrant Crime Is Still Low

Last year we published a blog summarizing the research on how immigrants affect the crime rate in the United States. There are two major types of studies that examine this question.

The first uses Census data of the institutionalized population to investigate immigrant versus native incarceration rates. Although the Census evidence isn’t perfect because of potential issues with reporting immigration status and different types of incarceration, these studies show that immigrants are less likely to be incarcerated than similarly-aged natives.  The second type is a macro-level or area study that looks at the crime rates in places that have experienced large waves of immigration.  These generally find that immigration either lowers or has little effect on crime rates.  The research on unauthorized immigrant crime rates is poor.

A few recent papers recently extended these findings.  The first by David Green seeks to determine whether immigrants affect violent and drug-related crime in the United States on the state-level.  It looks at state-level rates of violent crime and drug arrests pooled for the 2012-2014 years against pooled statistics on foreign-born and Mexican nationals by immigration status, specifically legal versus unauthorized immigrants.  Green finds no association between immigrant population size and increased violent crime.  However, he does find a small but statistically significant association between unauthorized immigrant population size and arrests for drug offenses.

Money Laundering Laws: Ineffective and Expensive

Beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, the federal government (as well as other governments around the world) began to adopt policies based on the idea that crime could be reduced if you somehow could make it very difficult for criminals to use the money they illegally obtain. So we now have a bunch of laws and regulations that require financial institutions to spy on their customers in hopes that this will inhibit money laundering.

But while the underlying theory may sound reasonable, such laws in practice have been a failure. There’s no evidence that these laws, which impose heavy costs on business and consumers, have produced a reduction in criminal activity.

Instead, the only tangible result seems to be more power for government and reduced access to financial services for poor people.

And now we have even more evidence that these laws don’t make sense. In a thorough study for the Heritage Foundation, David Burton and Norbert Michel put a price tag on the ridiculous laws, regulations, and mandates that are ostensibly designed to make it hard for crooks to launder cash, but in practice simply undermine legitimate commerce and make it hard for poor people to use banks.

Oh, and these rules also are inconsistent with a free society. Here are the principles they say should guide the discussion.

The United States Constitution’s Bill of Rights, particularly the Fourth, Fifth, and Ninth Amendments, together with structural federalism and separation of powers protections, is designed to…protect…individual rights. The current financial regulatory framework is inconsistent with these principles. …Financial privacy can allow people to protect their life savings when a government tries to confiscate its citizens’ wealth, whether for political, ethnic, religious, or “merely” economic reasons. Businesses need to protect their private financial information, intellectual property, and trade secrets from competitors in order to remain profitable. Financial privacy is of deep and abiding importance to freedom, and many governments have shown themselves willing to routinely abuse private financial information.

And here are the key findings about America’s current regulatory morass, which violates the above principles.

The current U.S. framework is overly complex and burdensome… Reform efforts also need to focus on costs versus benefits. The current framework, particularly the anti-money laundering (AML) rules, is clearly not cost-effective. As demonstrated below, the AML regime costs an estimated $4.8 billion to $8 billion annually. Yet, this AML system results in fewer than 700 convictions annually, a proportion of which are simply additional counts against persons charged with other predicate crimes. Thus, each conviction costs approximately $7 million, potentially much more.

By the way, the authors note that their calculations represent “a significant underestimate of the actual burden” because they didn’t include foregone economic activity, higher consumer prices for financial services, lower returns for shareholders of financial institutions, higher financial expenses for unbanked individuals, and other direct and indirect costs.

And what are the offsetting benefits? Can all these costs be justified?

The Luckiest Crop in History

Recently, the New York Times ran an opinion piece by Gregg Easterbrook, which draws attention to the disconnect between the gloomy public on the one hand and the real state of America on the other hand. The prevailing mood in the United States is one of pessimism.

Arizona’s SB1070 and Crime

Arizona state representative Sonny Borrelli (R) remarked that crime rates in his state dropped 78 percent since the passage of that state’s infamous SB1070 in 2010. His remark was thoroughly debunked. Below are a few charts to put Arizona’s crime rates in context. 

It is very difficult to show causality between a law and its effect on crime in later years. Crime rates have trended downward in the United States for over 20 years now. It is difficult to credit any decline after 2010 to a specific Arizona immigration law.  Also, Arizona’s crime rate cannot be considered in isolation. Comparing it to neighboring states and the country as a whole which did not pass an SB1070-type bill is necessary to even get a slight hint of how that law on crime.  Furthermore, there is a vast empirical literature on the effect of immigration on crime. At worst, immigration has almost no effect on crime. At best, immigration decreases crime rates.   

All of the figures are presented as a rate of crime per 100,000. The violent crime rate in Arizona was declining before SB 1070 and continued to decline afterward (Figure 1). From 2009 to 2014, the Arizona violent crime rate declined by 6.3 percent while it dropped 13 percent nationally. There was a decline of 16.3 percent in California, 9.9 percent  in Nevada, and 5.5 percent in New Mexico. 

Figure 1

Violent Crime Rate


Source: FBI.

Like the violent crime rate, the property crime rate in Arizona was also declining before SB 1070 and continued to decline afterward (Figure 2). From 2009 to 2014, the Arizona property crime rate decline by 10.9 percent while it dropped 14.6 percent nationally. It declined in every other state: 10.6 percent in California, 14.3 percent in Nevada, and 4.6 percent in New Mexico.

The War against Cash, Part I

Politicians hate cash.

That may seem an odd assertion given that they love spending money (other people’s money, of course, as illustrated by this cartoon).

But what I’m talking about is the fact that politicians get upset when there’s not 100 percent compliance with tax laws.

They hate tax havens since the option of a fiscal refuge makes confiscatory taxation impractical.

They hate the underground economy because that means hard-to-tax economic activity.

And they hate cash because it gives consumers an anonymous payment mechanism.

Let’s explore the animosity to cash.

Immigration and Crime – What the Research Says

The alleged murder of Kate Steinle in San Francisco by illegal immigrant Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez has reignited the debate over the link between immigration and crime. Such debates often call for change in policy regarding the deportation or apprehension of illegal immigrants. However, if policies should change, it should not be in reaction to a single tragic murder.  It should be in response to careful research on whether immigrants actually boost the U.S. crime rates. 

With few exceptions, immigrants are less crime prone than natives or have no effect on crime rates.  As described below, the research is fairly one-sided.       

There are two broad types of studies that investigate immigrant criminality.  The first type uses Census and American Community Survey (ACS) data from the institutionalized population and broadly concludes that immigrants are less crime prone than the native-born population.  It is important to note that immigrants convicted of crimes serve their sentences before being deported with few exceptions.  However, there are some potential problems with Census-based studies that could lead to inaccurate results.  That’s where the second type of study comes in.  The second type is a macro level analysis to judge the impact of immigration on crime rates, generally finding that increased immigration does not increase crime and sometimes even causes crime rates to fall. 

Mexican Violence and Unauthorized Immigration

The murder rate in Mexico is a serious and troubling issue that I’m frequently asked about in relation to immigration. Although far lower than in other Central American countries, the Mexican murder rate is almost three times as high as it was in 2007 – and potentially much higher. But, do unauthorized Mexican immigrants come to the United States to avoid the violence in their home country?

I decided to plot the number of Mexican nationals apprehended by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) on the left axis, an admittedly imperfect measurement of the intensity of unauthorized immigration, and the murder rate in Mexico per 100,000 people on the right axis.

Sources: Sources: Customs and Border Protection U.S. Border Patrol Statistics and Trans-Border Institute.

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