Map_of_US_Violent_Crime.svg

Crime in the US under open borders

Crime is a common concern regarding immigration among US restrictionists. The statistics on immigration and crime in the United States show pretty clearly that as things stand today, the foreign-born have lower crime rates than natives both in total and for every ethnicity and for every combination of ethnicity and high school graduation status. Nathan recently blogged about how immigration might also indirectly reduce native crime rates. So, restrictionists need not be worried about immigrant crime under the status quo.

But there’s still the concern about radical open borders to contend with: even if restrictionist concerns about immigrant crime are misplaced at current rates of migration, the concern may still be valid for truly open borders. Is it? It’s hard to say anything definitive, so if you believe in the precautionary principle, this is a slam dunk argument against open borders. However, I will try to argue in this post that there is no strong reason to believe that open borders would lead to a significant upward trend in US crime rates. In fact, I would say that the odds of crime rates going up versus down are about even, and they almost certainly will not explode.

The first point I will make is that even under the current highly restrictive immigration laws, there is some immigration, including “low-skilled” immigration, to the United States from all parts of the world. While border-crossing from Mexico forms the lion’s share of “low-skilled” immigration to the United States, there are also a few low-skilled work visas and, more importantly, a diversity visa that is not designed to pick out high-skilled workers but rather favors countries that send few immigrants to the United States. Thus, the current data on immigration and crime in the United States does shed some light on what might happen under a radically freer migration regime.

However, I will, for the moment, set this point aside. Assume for the moment that current immigration from a country is completely unrepresentative of what immigration from the country would look like under open borders. What method can we then use to approximate crime rates for immigration from that country? We could look at average crime rates in the sending country. I would argue that this would overestimate their crime rates in the United States for three reasons:

  • The qualities that go into making a criminal typically include a high discount rate and a lack of future orientation. These qualities are not conducive to undertaking an overseas journey and adapting to a completely new environment — huge upfront costs for long-term benefits. Even a modest immigration tariff could improve the filtering out of criminals of this sort. Note that this analysis is valid under open borders and is particularly valid for “low-skilled” and poor workers, for whom the costs of moving are quite large compared to their present earnings and savings. Among the poor and low-skilled workers, it’s highly likely that the ones who successfully migrate are the ones who have enough future orientation not to be criminals. In contrast, for high-skilled (and therefore typically richer) people, the raw costs of migrating may be sufficiently low (relative to their current or expected income) that even if they had the low future orientation characteristic of most criminals, they would still be able to migrate. But then again, high-skilled people typically already demonstrated sufficient future orientation in acquiring the high skills.
  • Some fraction of crimes are partly a result of poverty, ethnic conflict, and other conditions specific to the source country of migrants. The migrants’ improved economic condition as well as the lower emphasis on violent means of resolving ethnic conflicts in the United States may reduce their crime rates.
  • The fear of deportation may keep migrants from committing crimes. Deportation is a tool that is rarely considered when debating the kinds of punishments that would deter crime among natives, but it’s freely considered for migrants.

However, here’s the kicker: even if we assume that immigrants to the United States have the same crime rates as their sending countries, this still wouldn’t mean that immigration would lead to a massive explosion in crime — only a modest increase. The worldwide crime rate is only slightly higher than the United States crime rate. There is far more variation in crime rates between US cities than is the difference between the US crime rate and the worldwide crime rate. According to the Wikipedia page, the most recent available world intentional homicide rate was 6.9/100,000 and that in the US was 4.2/100,000 (both numbers seem to be trending downward). The corresponding rate in Washington D.C. is 24/100,000 according to data on the same page. And according to this page, the US homicide rate in the early 1990s was more than 9/100,000, i.e., considerably more than the worldwide homicide rate. Restrictionists concerned about crime should be more worried about Americans from the 1990s than about foreigners.

And in some sense, the current restrictive immigration regime already gets immigration from higher crime areas. The majority of illegal immigration in the United States is from the Americas, which as a whole have a higher crime rate (15.4/100,000, with Mexico having 22.7/100,000) than the world. Despite this, immigrants from these countries have lower crime rates than natives of the same ethnicity, and about the same crime rates as natives overall. So, free migration from the world over should be even rosier as far as US crime rates go.

Let’s dig a bit deeper into the regions that are most likely to send large numbers of poor immigrants to the US under open borders compared to what they currently do. The two most obvious candidates are India and China. Crime rates in India are somewhat lower than in the United States, though in the same ballpark, despite India being considerably poorer (the intentional homicide rates are 3.2/100,000 for India versus 4.2/100,000 for the United States). Crime rates in China are dramatically lower than in the United States — 1/100,000 intentional homicides against 4.2/100,000. We don’t have to worry much about Europe either — crime rates in Europe are 3.5/100,000, somewhat lower than the US. The only regions of the world with a higher crime rate than Mexico are a few African countries and a few countries in the southern Americas. Some of these countries have been involved in various kinds of violent political wars, and it’s possible that at least part of the homicide rate is driven by ethnic warfare — most of which migrants would leave behind (in the case of Mexico, the Drug War is probably a big factor behind the high homicide rate). In any case, the total population of these regions is quite insignificant compared to the world population. Perhaps restrictionists could work toward a keyhole solution such as a higher application fee for potential migrants from these countries that could be used to conduct a more thorough criminal background check compared to what is done for migrants from most countries. The most extreme restrictionist measure might be to maintain the status quo for all countries with higher crime rates than Washington D.C. and have free migration for all countries with lower crime rates than Washington D.C. Such restrictions would violate my thumb rule as well as the criteria described by John Lee, but I would still consider such a proposal a significant improvement in the direction of open borders relative to the status quo.

I will close by suggesting what restrictionists would need to do to re-establish a serious case for crime under open borders. They would need to demonstrate either that migrants are strongly selected to be among the more criminal elements of their population, or that there are some features of US society that might actually make immigrants more criminal than they were in their source country, or that immigration would disproportionately be from among the countries with higher crime rates. I have given arguments above for why I think that all these are not only false, but that the truth is actually at the opposite end in all cases. I look forward to seeing restrictionists (and other interested people) offer more refined formulations of their concern and pointing out any flaws they can find in my analysis.

The map featured at the top of this post shows violent crime per capita by state in the US, and is available in the public domain. Found on Wikimedia Commons.

14 thoughts on “Crime in the US under open borders”

  1. Excellent post, though I wish you’d mentioned the big facts that (a) world crime rates are comparable to the US, not generally higher, and (b) current immigration policy de facto selects immigrants disproportionally from high crime rates nearer the beginning of the post. That is, as you say, “the kicker.” It’s just not the case, in general, that foreigners have a higher propensity for crime. And migration policy could easily be adapted to favor low-crime source countries. By the way, while the crime argument works badly for the US, it might be more convincing for Europe and Japan. What it would suggest, though, is the criminality levels of the US might be a kind of worst-case scenario for Europe and Japan under open borders. At the end of the day, having a few crime-ridden slums is not the end of the world. It’s a small price to pay for the vast increases in productivity and opportunity that open borders would give rise to.

    1. Thanks, Nathan. Point (a) is only somewhat true –world crime rates are somewhat higher than the US, but the variation pales compared to the urban-rural difference in the US or even to the US crime rate drop since 1990. I didn’t want to over-emphasize point (b), because I think the Drug War is probably a big contributor to the high crime rates of Mexico and other Latin American countries, so I would be overstating my point if I relied too much on (b).

      You’re right that this argument does not apply to Europe and Japan, if they find US-like crime rates unacceptable. As you point out, though, their worst-case scenario is likely to be US-level crime rates or somewhat higher.

      I will probably make this point in a subsequent blog post, but I think people in the First World dramatically overestimate the mean and understate the variance of crime in the Third World. This is probably because certain forms of violence, such as violent religious and ethnic riots and ethnic and political terrorism, are seen more in the Third World, e.g., in India, despite a fairly low *overall* crime rate. And these kinds of riots get more news coverage than day-to-day crime. The actual unsafe regions of the world, crime-wise, are quite few, mostly limited to Africa and Latin America, with a few Eastern European countries in the mix.

  2. “I will close by suggesting what restrictionists would need to do to re-establish a serious case for crime under open borders. They would need to demonstrate either that migrants are strongly selected to be among the more criminal elements of their population, or that there are some features of US society that might actually make immigrants more criminal than they were in their source country, ”

    Looking directly at the 2nd and later generations of migrant populations in the rich countries are even more direct than this. One can look at crime rates among the young in African immigrant populations in Europe, and Latin-American populations in the USA to see crime rates and assess costs. And those rates are high.

    Also, note that at the moment illegal migration to the US and EU is fairly expensive, so that relatively nearby Latin Americans and people from the Middle East and North Africa are the big takers. In an open borders situation migration from Africa would rise immensely, and crime rates for African populations in rich countries are very high, except when migration is limited to extremely selected groups like graduate students. This factor alone could make the open border migrant mix significantly more conducive to crime over time than current distributions.

    Some reasons why crime rates can be higher in a new country:

    -More portable wealth increases the returns to property crime
    -increased idleness and opportunity to cause trouble due to being further from subsistence and able to survive without much work or good reputation
    -conflict along ethnic or religious lines is a real factor in observed migration (consider tension between Muslim migrants in the EU from the MENA and the native population, or racial tensions and racialized gang membership in the US)
    -developing countries often have terrible statistics and reporting systems, favoring the underestimation of crime, partly through the administration of justice or retaliation through informal channels outside the legal system, partly through corruption and disinterested law enforcement

    Regardless, the actual data for the descendants of migrants with different characteristics are what’s relevant here.

    1. Good points, BK. I appreciate your engaging the issue. I still don’t quite see, though, how open borders would be notably worse than the status quo. Yes, there would be more immigration from Africa, but the most notable increase in immigration is likely to be from India (crime rate slightly lower than the US) and China (crime rate a lot lower than the US). I think the *overall* mix under open borders would be toward lower crime rates than the status quo policy. That said, as I noted near the end of my blog post, a keyhole solution that maintains the status quo for Africa and considerably opens immigration from countries with crime rates lower than, say, Washington D.C. would be something I would be willing to sign on provisionally.

      Now, some quick responses to your initial points; I’ll think more about them and perhaps get back to you later:

      “-More portable wealth increases the returns to property crime”

      That’s a good one. Point taken.

      “-increased idleness and opportunity to cause trouble due to being further from subsistence and able to survive without much work or good reputation”

      I’ll have to look into this, but prima facie, I’m unimpressed. I think you underestimate how idle and jobless people often are in poor countries for large parts of the year, and how much more productively they could use their time in the first world with better employment opportunities.

      “-conflict along ethnic or religious lines is a real factor in observed migration (consider tension between Muslim migrants in the EU from the MENA and the native population, or racial tensions and racialized gang membership in the US)”

      Possible, but ethnic conflict is quantitatively a very small contributor to day-to-day crime rates. India, for instance, has more than its fair share of ethnic conflict, but a fairly low crime rate. The majority of crimes are petty, thoughtless, and self-centered, not in the service of ethnic ideologies.

      So ethnic conflict is a point to be considered separately (it’s bad for its own reasons), but I don’t think it contributes much to the raw quantity of crime.

      As Nathan and I have already pointed out upstream in the comments, immigration to the EU is different because Western Europe has a much lower crime rate than the US, so equally criminal immigrants who may not affect the US crime rate would in fact increase the Western European crime rate. The point would work even better, for say, immigration to Japan — Japanese would fear that immigration from the US would increase Japanese crime rates.

      “-developing countries often have terrible statistics and reporting systems, favoring the underestimation of crime, partly through the administration of justice or retaliation through informal channels outside the legal system, partly through corruption and disinterested law enforcement”

      True. That’s why I focused on intentional homicide rates, because “you can’t ignore a dead body.” I didn’t focus on, say, rapes (where under-reporting is a serious problem, and false rapes are also a problem, distorting the reliability of statistics) or property crimes (which may go underreported at different rates). The method of using homicide rates as a more reliable indicator is not something I invented. Steven Pinker’s tome on the decline of violence uses homicide as the primary indicator for precisely this reason, and restrictionist Steve Sailer has also agreed (I can’t find the link right away).

      I’d be happy to redo the analysis with other forms of crime.

      1. “Yes, there would be more immigration from Africa, but the most notable increase in immigration is likely to be from India (crime rate slightly lower than the US) and China (crime rate a lot lower than the US). I think the *overall* mix under open borders would be toward lower crime rates than the status quo policy.”

        As you noted elsewhere, crime is very skewed. Adding 3n million descendants with crime rate X, and n million with crime rate 10X gives an effect dominated by the 10X group.

        Regarding the relative role of Africa relative to South Asia and China, relative population, income, and age structure seem relevant.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sub-Saharan_Africa#Demographics

        “The population of Sub-Saharan Africa was 800 million in 2007.[47] The current growth rate is 2.3%. The UN predicts for the region a population of nearly 1.5 billion in 2050.[48]”
        More than 40% of the population in sub-Saharan countries is younger than 15 years old, as well as in the Sudan with the exception of South Africa

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_China
        China has 20% of its population under 15, and population growth rate of 0.47%. Income is approaching $10,000, and has been growing at close to 10%. Incomes are still higher in the coastal regions (China has its own internal migration controls via the hukou system that slow migration there, but are likely to be relaxed over time).

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_India
        India has a growth rate of 1.41%, and about 30% of the population is under 15.

        The young are much more likely to migrate. In an open borders situation where migrants can borrow on future earnings to pay for transport the affordability of travel is not much of an issue. And Africans have more to gain than the Chinese by leaving. India is intermediate.

        Then throw in intermediate-descendant-crime sources like Latin America, rich-country migration, and swathes of Eurasia and Oceania. If descendants of these migration sources behave similarly to those from previous migration from those sources, then that looks like a higher-crime overall mix than current migration, and increasingly so as the century goes on if African population growth remains relatively high.

        1. Thanks, BK. These are good points. As of now, I still stand by my original argument, but I will definitely do a follow-up post at some point looking at the demographic trends and patterns, and I will address to (and concede where necessary) all your points. It’ll have to wait a bit though — I’m currently working on a lot of other blog post drafts.

      2. Also in the vein of “how can crime rates be higher for kids in the new country?”, crime is substantially higher in urban contexts, controlling for ethnicity and other factors. Rich countries have much higher rates of urbanization than the poorest countries. For instance India’s urbanization rate is about 32%, around 40% for all of Africa (including more urbanized South and North Africa), vs over 82% in the U.S., and even higher for immigrants to the US.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urbanisation_in_India
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urbanization_in_Africa
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_the_United_States

  3. Piece of shit. So it would be a “modest” increase in crime that would make it excusable to allow these criminals into America? They’re already x ruminate because they snuck in. ‘Oh it’s okay for them to sneak in as long as they kill only a few Americans a year’. Give me a fuckin break. You can see the contributions of those who got naturalized because they identifiable federal information. You can’t see the contributions of the ones who snuck in until after they chop someone’s head off. What about the Mexican, Colombian, El Salvadorian and other foreign country drug cartels operating in America under the auspice of open borders? What about the foreigner human traffickers operating in America under the auspice of open borders? Oh I forgot, because it doesn’t happen thar often it’s excusable. Typical fuckin progressive.

Leave a Reply