Immigration may lower crime rate, says CU prof Tim Wadsworth

University of Colorado sociologist Tim Wadsworth says it was "complete and utter happenstance" that his study about immigration was released just as debate over the issue is at its most contentious. "It was accepted for publication [by Social Science Quarterly] last October and was put in the lineup. I don't think anyone could have predicted the timing."

Nor could folks have guessed how controversial his findings would be -- particularly his conclusion that immigration may actually lower the crime rate, rather than causing it to rise.

Arizona's controversial new immigration law has been protested on many fronts in Colorado: a student walkout, a series of rallies, a Denver Public Schools ban of official travel and a similar prohibition by the City of Boulder that prompted schmucky Senator Dave Schultheis to call for a boycott of the community where Wadsworth works.

However, Wadsworth's assessment, saddled with the wordy headline "Is Immigration Responsible for the Crime Drop? An Assessment of the Influence of Immigration on Changes in Violent Crime Between 1990 and 2000: (to read it, click here), deals with the subject with academic dispassion, not political fervor. The piece, slated for SSQ's June edition, concludes with the following statement:

Although using local police and self-report data to examine patterns of offending across different immigrant and native-born populations over time introduces new methodological challenges, it would likely be a useful avenue for future research. In the meantime, however, this and other research that contradicts popularly held notions that high levels of immigration result in more crime should play an important role in challenging the public discourse as we begin to shape new immigration policy for the 21st century.

According to Wadsworth, "the study was a response to an op-ed piece from 2006 written by a Harvard sociologist named Robert Sampson. He published a piece in the New York Times asking if questions of immigration might be related to the drop in crime in the 1990s -- one of the largest decreases in crime rates the country has ever seen.

"Sociologists and criminologists have been trying to explain why we've seen this huge decrease, and have offered various explanations, with research supporting some of them and not supporting others. But Robert Sampson said we hadn't really looked at immigration, which grew tremendously in the '90s. He wondered, is there any association? And I thought that was a very interesting question, and very testable."

Wadsworth didn't set out with an agenda. Still, he was aware that "in the public mind, shown by polls by Time, Newsweek and other magazines, people associate immigration with an increase in crime. So, as a scholar, this was a combination of an interesting empirical case and something that would assess how accurate common sense was on the issue."

With that, Wadsworth began collecting "uniform crime report data," focusing on homicide and robbery, which he viewed as offering the most reliable figures -- "and then I took the standard correlates, like changes in the economy, divorce rates, the proportion of the population that's young and male, and other factors that have been explored already. There's a consensus that these measures have an impact -- so by including measures of immigration, I hoped to add some explanatory bang for the buck about what happened in the '90s."

What did he discover?

"To cut to the chase," he says, "once I finished the statistical analysis, most of the correlates we thought would have mattered did matter. More poverty in particular cities led to an increase, or at least less of a decline, in homicide and robbery. And cities that had growth in divorce rates had increases or smaller decreases. But the cities that experienced the largest growth in immigration experienced some of the largest decreases in homicide and robbery."

As Wadworth makes clear, his study wasn't meant to explain why this might be the case, and he looks forward to supplementary information from future researchers. Until then, all he can do is offer theories.

One possible explanation involves the relative fitness of the immigrants who come to this country. "They might be individuals who were self-selected or chosen by families and communities as the most likely to succeed in a new community -- most likely to be able to get jobs, send money home and support other family members coming to the U.S. It wouldn't be so much about their health. Think of a family that only had the resources to send one child to college. The family would pick the one they thought would do the best -- and the same idea might be true for immigration."

Another supposition involves "the cultural, religious and family bonds" that are shared by immigrants from Mexico, Central America and South America. "They have relatively low divorce rates, for instance," says Wadsworth, "and we know stable families decrease the likelihood of crime."

In addition, Wadsworth mentions "the idea that immigrant communities stimulate local economies, thereby decreasing unemployment, which helps lower the crime rate." Plus, "there's a real motivation to stay out of trouble among immigrants. If an individual in a family gains negative attention, by being arrested or going to jail, it could create problems for the rest of the family -- and criminologists know these things make a difference."

Since Wadworth's study went public, plenty of folks have attempted to knock down his findings. But he believes most of their objections are anecdotal in nature.

"People will say, 'If you go down to L.A. or Phoenix, you can see all these immigrants committing crime,'" he notes. "That may or may not be true -- but it's not a systematic examination of what's going on in the relationship between immigration and crime... It's a sample size of one, which doesn't justify conclusions about patterns."

That's why Wadsworth is eager for other scholars to use his work as a jumping-off point to delve more deeply into the whys and wherefores of immigration's effect on crime rates. And once the latest census information is released, he's eager to repeat his methodology to determine if what was true from 1990 to 2000 remained true from 2000 to 2010.

Until then, the arguments continue -- but Wadsworth hopes a few more facts will help them be productive ones.

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