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.