Does more immigration equal less crime?

Here’s my ham-fisted approach to summarizing the article linked to below: New immigrants feel alienated from their surroundings and are thus inclined to watch their children like hawks. This keeps the first generation of immigrants in line, but we then trend back towards the mean afterwards as their children integrate better into the community.

The Walrus – Arrival of the Fittest

An international survey of public attitudes about immigration published in 2009 found that while Canadians have positive feelings overall about immigrants, more than half blame illegal migrants for driving up crime.

What few have bothered to ask is whether there’s any merit to this belief. There have certainly been signs that they should. In Arizona, where a new law makes the failure to carry immigration documents a crime and gives the police broad powers to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally — an infraction sometimes called “walking while Hispanic” — crime levels have actually dropped with the concurrent influx of Mexicans.

In fact, the violence of Mexico’s drug war doesn’t seem to have travelled north with immigrants: crime rates in US towns along the country’s 3,200-kilometre southern border are down. In Canada, an overall drop in crime has paralleled the upsurge in non-European immigration since Pierre Trudeau championed multiculturalism in the 1970s. Half of Toronto’s population now consists of those born outside Canada; notably, the city’s crime rate has dropped by 50 percent since 1991, and is significantly lower than that of the country as a whole.

Could it be that immigrants are making us all safer?

When the violent crime rate in the US began to fall, sharply and consistently, in the 1990s, a handful of criminologists and sociologists there started investigating a possible connection to the rising tide of immigration. Two early studies that tracked crime in dozens of metropolitan areas discovered that cities with the highest increase in immigration also had the largest decrease in violent crime; there was possibly a causal relationship, but it wasn’t clear what it was. One of the first researchers to begin to connect the dots was Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson.

About a decade ago, he and his colleagues looked at violent acts committed over an eight-year period by some 3,000 men and women in 180 neighbourhoods in Chicago, a diverse city with a considerable population of Hispanic immigrants. What they found was that Mexican Americans were far less likely to be violent than African Americans or whites. When all variables were accounted for it became clear that this was in large part because a quarter of the subjects were born outside the US and more than half lived in communities where the majority of residents were also of Mexican heritage.

Overall, first generation immigrants of any background were 45 percent less likely to commit violent acts than third generation Americans, and living in a neighbourhood with a large concentration of immigrants of any nationality was associated with lower levels of violence. In a nutshell, immigration protected these Chicago communities against violent behaviour.

Also, as Sampson had discovered, the disinclination to commit crime extended across all nationalities; it didn’t matter whether a teenager’s family was from India or Trinidad or China. Specific cultural values were not at play; nor could behaviour be chalked up to a given ethnic group’s parenting style (sorry, Tiger Moms). “[The model minority] has been a fetish of a lot of the media,” Dinovitzer says. “They want to focus on the good Korean kids, or some other group. Our study unequivocally shows there’s no difference between these immigrant groups.”

However, second generation immigrant kids (defined in this study as having been born in Canada or at least having arrived here before age six) were more likely than first generation immigrants (having arrived past the age of twelve) to get into fights, take drugs, vandalize, or steal. In other words, the newer the immigrant, the better behaved he or she was.

The U of T study, which was published in 2009, shortly after Sampson’s findings, has done a great deal to validate the theory that immigration decreases crime. And the case is only getting stronger: Statistics Canada has now released findings from a spatial analysis of crime data in Canadian cities that suggest the percentage of recent immigrants in various regions of Toronto and Montreal is inversely proportional to all types of violent crime; in the latter case, it concluded that while various socio-economic factors increase crime, “the proportion of recent immigrants lowers the violent crime rate; it acts as a protective factor.”

But that’s not the end of the matter. Noting the discrepancy between the stereotypes about immigrants and the data coming out of the research, Levi says, “It’s very uplifting to have a story that says it’s different from what we previously thought. But it still begs the question of why immigrants should be distinct in this area from native borns in any way.”

If the good news emerging from the research is that immigrants are up-by-the-bootstraps strivers who revitalize cities and reduce crime rates, then the sober side to this story is what happens to their descendants. Remember, Dinovitzer, Hagan, and Levi found that second generation immigrant youth engaged in more criminal behaviour than first generation youth did — about as much, in fact, as Canadians who were third generation and beyond.

Dinovitzer says this can be explained partly by the statistical phenomenon of regression toward the mean: “The longer you live in a group, the more likely you are to become like the group,” she says. Over time, people are exposed to new influences and values, and are given more opportunities to get into trouble. Of greater concern are behavioural changes that may stem from the frustration of second generation immigrants who don’t see their parents’ efforts paying off.

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