by José de la Isla
HOUSTON – Tell me straight. Do you think crime by immigrants is getting out of control? Has local media been carrying those stories? Do you think it’s worse now than before? Do you think the police need more legal tools to get control?
If so, there’s something you should know.
Another lengthy academic study has just come out maintaining that immigrants are far less inclined to be bad guys than our native sons. It’s the natives who grow up to become criminals.
The researchers, Dr. Ruben Rumbaut of University of California at Irvine and Dr. Walter A. Ewing, of the Immigration Policy Center, which published the study, found that between 1994 and 2000 criminal incarceration rates among immigrants were amazingly low. In that period, as the U.S. undocumented population doubled to 12 million, violent crime declined 34.2 percent and property crime dropped 26.4 percent.
Crime was low in all major categories when comparing immigrants and the native population. Among men 18 to 39 years, who mainly comprise this country’s prison inhabitants. Immigrants from Mexico were eight times less likely to be incarcerated than their U.S. counterparts. Foreign-born Salvadorans and Guatemalans had a rate six times lower than their counterpart cousins.
In a startling observation, IPC director Benjamin Johnson admitted the report implied, “At some point in the political process, the facts don’t matter… (Immigration policy issues) become about sound bites and not about data.”
That is probably why the public will discount IPC’s “The Myth of Immigrant Criminality and the Paradox of Assimilation,” the study released Feb. 26.
For more than a century, reports like this one have been saying the same thing. The Industrial Commission of 1901, the (Dillingham) Immigration Commission of 1911, and the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement of 1931 all found lower levels of criminal involvement among the foreign-born. The historical record is consistent.
What does this report tell us that we didn’t already know? Nothing. The more intriguing issue is, why isn’t a large noisy part of the public willing to believe it?
The report’s authors dispassionately reason that because many immigrants enter the country by overstaying visas and through unauthorized channels, their status “is framed as an assault against the ‘rule of law.’”
Rumbaut says the erroneous popular myth of immigrant criminality is fed by media anecdotes. Sensationalistic stories aid and abet an erroneous public perception.
Harvard researcher Robert Sampson, participating in a briefing on the report, calls mistaken public attitudes about immigrants and higher-crime rates a “red meat” issue used by politicians. “Being tough on crime is very popular.” In fact, the U.S., with decreasing crime, has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. “There’s a huge disconnect,” he said.
I asked Sampson whether the findings are really not a reflection on how U.S. society assimilates information. His response: “I think that is part of our message. The data have been out here for a while but they continue to be interpreted in a particular way.”
Rumbaut says there “is something almost in the DNA of American society, this fear that strangers coming from strange places undermine the welfare of the natives.”
Mark Twain’s wry wit comes to mind: ”There are lies, damn lies, and statistics.” But if the statistics have been telling the truth all along, public opinion that believes the contrary must fall in the categories of “lies and damn lies.”
[José de la Isla, author of “The Rise of Hispanic Political Power” (Archer Books, 2003) writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org]. © 2007