Donald Trump promises to make the United States safer by expelling immigrants and restricting their entry. But will that really reduce crime?
Exactly the opposite happened when U.S. immigration policy was more permissive.
In the 1970s and 80s, U.S. cities experienced rapid decline and an accumulation of problems – drugs, murders, robberies, race riots. Those were the years when President Gerald Ford opposed increased federal assistance to a near-bankrupt New York City, and the New York Daily News published its famous headline, “Drop Dead,” in reference to Ford's vow to let New York City go bankrupt.
But despite the worst predictions, the beginning of the 90s saw a sharp drop in crime and an urban renewal. While murders in New York City hit a record 2,200 in 1990, police figures showed 335 in 2016 and 333 in 2014. Similar drops were reported across the nation. Although some large cities have recently reported a rebound, the U.S. continues to have historically low levels of crime.
Immigration increased during that time. In 1970, in the middle of the crime crisis, the United States had 9.6 million foreign-born people, or 4.7 percent of the total population. By 2015, that number had grown to 43.3 million, or 13.5 percent.
That rapid increase was the result of a 1965 immigration law that eliminated restrictive country quotas in place since the 1920s.
Criminologists like Harvard's Robert Sampson have been researching the immigration-crime link for more than 10 years, but studies on why crime fell have yet to focus directly on the question of whether the presence of immigrants in fact contributed to the drop in crime.
The most popular explanations among politicians, social scientists and law enforcement officials have pointed to the country's aging population, the large prison population, the increased numbers of police on the streets and even lead-free gasoline – because exposure to lead has been linked to lower IQ and behavioral problems.
Another explanation, included in the 2005 best-selling book Freakonomics, even pointed to the increased availability of abortion following the Supreme Court's ruling on Roe v. Wade in 1973, arguing that unwanted babies grew up to be potential criminals.
Experts who have studied the links between immigration and crime acknowledge that violence is a complex phenomenon and that any drops or increases should not be attributed to a single factor.
They can't even agree on whether an increase in immigration can directly cause a drop in crime. Many studies have not found an automatic link, but others in cities like Chicago and Los Angeles have indeed shown a statistical link.
Where criminologists do agree is that data used by conservative politicians to suggest that more immigration leads to more crime is false.
In an attempt to settle that question, a report that will be published soon in the first issue of the magazine Annual Review of Criminology looks at 20 years of research into how the arrival of immigrants affects areas such as neighborhoods, cities or metropolitan regions.
Authors Charis E. Kubrin of the University of California, Irvine and Graham Ousey from the College of William and Mary reviewed the findings of more than 50 studies from 1994 to 2014 for what's known as a meta-analysis, a study of studies. It's the first time that type of research was done on the link between crime and immigrants.
Kubris told Univision Noticias that the new study showed that more immigration generally meant less crime.
Although the link was weak – many of the studies reviewed did not consider the question – their findings undermined the stereotype of the immigrant as a threat. Only a tiny number of studies found that more immigration led to more crime.
"As far as I am concerned, it's case closed on the question of whether immigration causes crime, and the answer is absolutely and unequivocally no," Kubrin said. "We criminologists have moved on, but the rest of the country keeps asking that darned question."
Ambitious and hard working
The professors' findings support what's known as the “immigrants' paradox” – the idea that even though immigrants generally face more difficulties, they are less likely to commit crimes or display other social pathologies, like drug abuse. That's because immigrants are usually ambitious people who are motivated to do well. The paradox holds that immigrants do not want to put their new lives at risk with bad behavior.
Another explanation for the positive impact of migrants is the “broken window idea,” which holds that abandoned buildings are a sign of urban decay that sends a negative message to real and potential residents. Immigrants looking for cheap housing can revitalize those areas, as they have done in the so-called Rust Belt.
In addition, several different studies of the impact of immigrants on crime have shown that in fact migrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the United States.
The myth of the criminal immigrant
Criminologists say they are frustrated by the persistence of the myth of the criminal immigrant. Twenty years of studies have not managed to disarm the propaganda against immigration.
“It is very difficult to fight against stereotypes,” said Ramiro Martínez, a criminologist at Northeastern University and one of the first to study the impact of immigration on crime.
“Despite all the studies over the years, people still trust the strident declarations about immigrants,” Martínez told Univision News.
The conflict between the image of immigrants and facts started in the early 20th Century. Government commissions showed that there was no link between immigration and crime, yet that did not stop the rise of nativism and the approval of laws restricting the arrival of foreigners.
Today, in the so-called “post-fact” era, it seems even harder for research to overcome myth, but that has not stopped the experts. Several reports underscoring that immigrants do not commit more crimes were published in recent weeks by the Sentencing Project and the Cato Institute.
Their findings in fact raise the question of whether Trump's crackdown on immigration may lead to an increase in crime. Criminologists say they remain cautious on the answer because of the clearly weak linkage between immigration and crime.
“What is certain is that a significant drop in immigration could lead to a halt in the revitalization of many cities, which in turn could lead to the possibility of an increase in crime,” said Harvard's professor Sampson.
Few criminologists agree that the United States will definitely grow safer if immigration drops during the Trump presidency.
“All the things he's doing on immigration are completely unnecessary in the best of cases, and very harmful in the worst of cases,” said Kubrin.