Many in the U.S. are currently focused on the amount of crime committed by immigrants in the country. This is due to remarks made by presidential contender Donald Trump in June and a murder allegedly committed by an undocumented immigrant in San Francisco in July. Mr. Trump suggested that many Mexican immigrants are criminals. In this post I argue that even if it were true that immigrants would increase crime rates in America, open borders would still be justified.
In response to Mr. Trump’s remarks and the San Francisco murder, both The Washington Post and The New York Times have noted that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute has surveyed the research on immigration and crime rates and drawn a similar conclusion. The Immigration Policy Center also released a report which states that “the available evidence indicates that immigrants are not only less likely to end up behind bars than the native-born, but that immigrants are also less likely to commit criminal acts to begin with.” (p. 9) In a 2012 post, Vipul communicated the same message that immigrants have lower crime rates than native-born Americans.
Focusing on Mexican and Hispanic immigration, Mr. Nowrasteh notes that although one study showed that Mexican immigrants were committing more property crimes than native-born Americans, another demonstrated that Mexican immigrants “had no effect on violent or property crime rates in major U.S. metropolitan areas.” He also cites a study on Hispanic immigrants in Chicago that found that they were much less prone to committing violent criminal acts than native whites or blacks in the city.
The Immigration Policy Center offers an explanation for why immigrants commit less crime: “This is hardly surprising since immigrants come to the United States to pursue economic and educational opportunities not available in their home countries and to build better lives for themselves and their families. As a result, they have little to gain and much to lose by breaking the law. Unauthorized immigrants in particular have even more reason to not run afoul of the law given the risk of deportation that their lack of legal status entails.” (p. 20)
What about the crime rate of the offspring of immigrants? They do appear to become more prone to crime than their immigrant relatives, which an editor at the Pew Research Center calls the “dark side of assimilation.” An article on reason.com notes that “every year that an immigrant lives in the U.S. is associated with a 1.9 and 0.9 percent increase in nonviolent and violent crime respectively.” In addition, “the behaviors of the children of immigrants over time begin to resemble that of native-borns.” However, the offspring do not appear to commit more crimes than Americans generally. (Census data from 2000 indicate that U.S.-born young males of Mexican, Cuban, and three Southeast Asian ethnicities are incarcerated at higher rates than the overall U.S.-born average. Vipul notes, however, that “locking out entire ethnic groups due to the anticipated future crime rates of their descendants based on past data, which aren’t that much higher than native rates anyway, causes substantially more harm than letting them in and dealing with a crime rate that might fall less slowly or rise slightly in the future.”)
But could this picture of relatively low immigrant criminality change under open borders, which would mean a larger flow of immigrants and probably higher proportions from certain countries? Vipul explored this question in his 2012 post and concluded that with open borders “the odds of crime rates going up versus down are about even, and they almost certainly will not explode.” In reaching this conclusion, Vipul noted that the future orientation associated with migrants is generally incompatible with criminality, that the worldwide crime rate is similar to that of the U.S., that much of the immigration to the U.S under restrictive immigration laws already comes from countries with relatively high crime rates (other countries in the Americas), and that India and China, which likely would be the sources of large numbers of immigrants under open borders, have lower crime rates than the U.S.
Some Americans who care only about the well-being of citizens might call for an end to immigration altogether, let alone open borders, because one citizen death caused by immigrants, in their view, might be too many. If it were possible to stop immigration, that policy would eventually lead to no more murders or other crimes committed by immigrants because there would be no immigrants. (But of course the inevitable reproduction of the citizen population would lead to the creation of more people who would commit crimes, so they would have watch out for these new citizen criminals. They might also have to worry about the migration of citizens within the country who might commit crimes in their new areas of residence.)
More thoughtful American citizenists might look favorably on the impact of immigration on crime under the status quo of immigration restrictions that allow some immigration. Looking at the data, they might think, “The immigration system works pretty well right now in terms of crime. Those immigrants who make it into the U.S. are generally more law abiding than us citizens. They are revitalizing blighted urban areas, which reduces crime, and places with concentrated immigration are especially safe. (p. 6) If they are really knowledgeable, they might say, as does Mr. Nowrasteh, that perhaps by “contributing to greater economic prosperity through pushing natives up the skills spectrum through complementary task specialization,” immigrants keep some Americans away from crime. They might agree that “It is easy to focus on the horrible tragedies when somebody is murdered by an immigrant but it’s very hard to imagine all of the people who weren’t murdered because of the lower crime rates created by increased immigration.” However, despite Vipul’s arguments that crime rates would most likely not explode under open borders, they wouldn’t want to take that risk. Besides, they would probably have other concerns about immigration’s impact on citizens.
However, from an open-borders perspective, even if crime rates were to increase significantly under an open borders policy, the moral importance of having open borders outweighs such a development. (The manifesto of the group No One Is Illegal similarly suggests that principle should trump the concrete consequences of immigration, whether positive or negative. Since the consequences can change, “statistics are useful to refute distortions and lies, but cannot be the bedrock of our opposition to controls.” ) In a previous post, I noted two strong moral arguments (from Joseph Carens and Michael Huemer) for open borders, both of which would countenance large increases in crime levels under open borders, should they occur. For both arguments, the right to open borders could be overridden only if the flow of people under open borders led to a “breakdown of public order” or a “disastrous” result in the receiving country. A significant increase in the crime rate, unlikely as it would be, would not constitute such a cataclysm.
In sum, the evidence strongly suggests that currently immigrant crime rates are lower than those of native-born Americans. The crime rates of immigrants’ offspring resembles those of Americans but doesn’t appear to be higher. Vipul has convincingly argued that under open borders the crime rate in the U.S. likely wouldn’t change dramatically. Even if it did, an open borders policy would still be morally warranted.
The photograph of Donald Trump featured on this post was taken by Gage Skidmore and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike licence.