Hispanic crime and illegal immigration in the United States

We consider the example of immigration from Mexico and other Latin American countries to the United States (much of it illegal). People from Mexico and other Latin American countries, and their descendants, are termed “Hispanics” and this is treated as an ethnic category in the United States for some purposes. Technically, “Hispanic” is an ethnic, not a racial category, but some people treat it as a racial category as well, leading to some confusion. This page explores the question of crime rates of Hispanics and the implications this has for the immigration debate.

Somewhat predictably, restrictionists take a more pessimistic perspective while supporters of immigration are more bullish.

Before getting into the differing interpretations of the statistical evidence, consider the question: if the high Hispanic crime rate (such as it is) entails forbidding Hispanic immigration, does the higher black crime rate entail “deporting” blacks en masse to Africa?

Please also note that this page is about crime concerns for the current level and pattern of immigration to the United States. Discussion of what would happen under truly open borders is of necessity speculative, but one such attempt is made in the blog post crime in the US under open borders by Vipul Naik, October 14, 2012, for the Open Borders blog.

Statistics on criminality and incarceration rates

A report on incarceration rates by the Migration Policy Institute finds the following in Table 1:

  • Incarceration rate for US born: 3.51% (non-Hispanic whites: 1.71%, non-Hispanic blacks: 11.61%, Hispanics ranges between 2.3% and 5.9% based on country of ethnic origin, Asians ranges from 1% to 7.2%).
  • Incarceration rate for foreign born: 0.86%, i.e. about a quarter of that for the US born. (non-Hispanic whites 0.57%, non-Hispanic blacks 2.47%, Hispanics ranges from 0.2% to 2.2% based on country of origin, if we exclude Puerto Ricans, who are US citizens, Asians ranges from 0.1% to 0.9%). Note the interesting fact that all foreign born ethnicities, including blacks, have lower crime rates than the average for US natives.

Table 2 from the same report compares high school graduates and high school dropouts by ethnicity. For every combination of ethnicity and high school graduation status, the foreign born have lower incarceration rates than natives. This explains why restrictionists who are aware of the statistics are focused on the second-generation/third-generation criminality argument against immigration.

The report above is not an isolated instance. Similar results are found in a number of sources, including the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), Immigration and Intergenerational Mobility in Metropolitan Los Angeles (IIMMLA) survey, the Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study (CILS), the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), and other studies.

Sources of disagreement on how to interpret the data

  • Inclusion of blacks in native groups compared against?: Restrictionists generally compare the crime rate among Hispanics with that among “non-Hispanic whites” (rather than all Americans, which would include blacks). Supporters of Hispanic immigration claim that a better comparison would be against all Americans (including blacks). These two different types of analysis yield quite different conclusions because the crime rate among blacks in the United States is higher than that among all other racial categories (whites, Hispanics, and the numerically much smaller East Asians, South Asians, and other racial minorities). See Race and crime in the United States for links to authoritative sources with crime rate statistics. For more on the reasons behind this choice, see Why do many US restrictionists use “non-Hispanic whites” as the normative comparison group? by Vipul Naik.
  • Use demographic controls?: Restrictionists prefer not to use demographic controls (age, gender, and location) in crime rate comparisons. Supporters of immigration prefer to use such controls. The reason this matters is because illegal immigrants are disproportionately young males, a demographic that has been more likely to commit crimes since the dawn of humanity.
  • Blame immigration for the crimes of American-born Hispanics?: Restrictionists hold immigration responsible for crimes committed by Hispanics as a whole, not just by immigrants or illegal immigrants. In particular, they hold immigration responsible for crimes committed by second-generation and third-generation “immigrants” — the children and grandchildren of immigrants. Supporters of immigration point out that illegal immigrants themselves commit very few violent crimes because they fear deportation. Restrictionists concede this to some extent, but continue to be concerned about the crimes committed by the children and grandchildren of immigrants.
  • Count immigration offenses in crime list? Some of the statistics on crime and incarceration count immigration offenses among the crimes.

Restrictionist arguments on the immigrant-crime nexus

Evidence and arguments against the immigrant-crime nexus

Second-generation and third-generation crime

Overall, the data from Table 1 do show that Hispanics have higher crime rates than non-Hispanic whites and (most) Asian ethnicities. Thus, immigration restrictionists who are focused on this second-generation/third-generation crime effect may have some valid grounds for worry there, though, as pointed out above, comparison with all Americans, including blacks, paints a different picture. However, as the deportation to Africa analogy makes clear, 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.

Enforcement costs of preventing illegal immigration

When local police departments in the United States spend their resources investigating violation of immigration law, this leaves them with fewer resources to investigate violent crimes and property thefts. Links:

Other miscellaneous issues

P.S.: Thanks to Alex Nowrasteh for suggesting some of the links and references on this page.

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