Debunking The Myth Of Immigrant Criminality: Imprisonment Among First- And Second-Generation Young Men
Editor's note: The data in the first two columns of Table 3 have been corrected. Our deepest regrets for the error.
The advantage for immigrants vis-à-vis natives applies to every ethnic group without exception. Almost all of the Asian immigrant groups have lower incarceration rates than the Latin American groups (the exception involves foreign-born Laotians and Cambodians, whose rate of 0.92 percent is still well below that for non-Hispanic white natives).
Tellingly, among the foreign born, the highest incarceration rate by far (4.5 percent) was observed among island-born Puerto Ricans, who are not immigrants as such since they are US citizens by birth and can travel to the mainland as natives. If the island-born Puerto Ricans were excluded from the foreign-born totals, the national incarceration rate for the foreign born would drop to 0.68 percent.
Of particular interest is the finding that the lowest incarceration rates among Latin American immigrants are seen for the least educated groups: Salvadorans and Guatemalans (0.52 percent), and Mexicans (0.70 percent). These are precisely the groups most stigmatized as "illegals" in the public perception and outcry about immigration.
Incarceration rates increase significantly for all US-born coethnics without exception. That is most notable for Mexicans, whose incarceration rate increases more than eightfold to 5.9 percent among the US born; for Vietnamese (from 0.46 to 5.6 percent among the US born); and for the Laotians and Cambodians (from 0.92 percent to 7.26 percent, the highest of any group except for native blacks). Almost all of the US born among those of Latin American and Asian origin can be assumed to consist of second-generation persons, with the exception of Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, whose numbers may include a sizable number (around 25 percent) of third-generation individuals. (Since 1980, when the questions on parents' country of birth were dropped, the decennial census has not permitted the precise identification of second vs. third or higher generations.)
Thus, while incarceration rates are found to be extraordinarily low among immigrants, they are also seen to rise rapidly by the second generation. Except for the Chinese and Filipinos, the rates of all US-born Latin American and Asian groups exceed that of the referent group of non-Hispanic white natives.
Education and Incarceration Rates
For all ethnic groups, as expected, the risk of imprisonment is highest for men who are high school dropouts (6.91 percent) compared to those who are high school graduates (2.0 percent). However, the differentials in the risk of incarceration by education are observed principally among native-born men, and not immigrants (see Table 2). Among the US born, 9.76 percent of all male dropouts 18 to 39 were in jail or prison in 2000, compared to 2.23 percent among those who had graduated from high school.
But among the foreign born, the incarceration gap by education was much narrower: Only 1.31 percent of immigrant men who were high school dropouts were incarcerated, compared to 0.57 percent of those with at least a high school diploma.
The advantage for immigrants held when broken down by education for every ethnic group. Indeed, nativity emerges in these data as a stronger predictor of incarceration than education. As noted, native-born high school graduates have a higher rate of incarceration than foreign-born, non-high school graduates (2.2 percent to 1.3 percent).
Among US-born men who had not finished high school, the highest incarceration rate by far was seen among non-Hispanic blacks, an astonishing 22.25 percent of whom were imprisoned at the time of the 2000 census; that rate was triple the 7.64 percent among foreign-born black dropouts.
Other high rates among US-born high school dropouts were observed among the Vietnamese (over 16 percent), followed by Colombians (over 12 percent), Cubans and Puerto Ricans (over 11 percent), Mexicans (10 percent), and Laotians and Cambodians (over nine percent). Again, almost all these can be assumed to consist of second-generation persons, as can the large majority of Mexicans and Puerto Ricans.
Length of Time in the United States and Incarceration Rates
The data examined thus far suggest that the process of "Americanization" leads to downward mobility and greater risks of involvement with the criminal justice system among a small but significant segment of this population. Therefore, the question of what happens to immigrant men over time in the United States was explored.
For every group without exception, the longer immigrants had resided in the United States, the higher were their incarceration rates (see Table 3). Here again, the rates of incarceration for island-born Puerto Ricans are significantly higher — regardless of how long they have lived on the US mainland — than the rates for all the immigrant groups listed in Table 3, underscoring their unique status.
In contrast, foreign-born Mexican men 18 to 39, by far the largest group (at over 3 million), have a lower incarceration rate than many other ethnic and racial groups — even after they have lived in the United States for over 15 years. Thus, the Mexican incarceration story in particular can be very misleading when the data conflate the foreign born and the native born, as official statistics on "Latinos" or "Hispanics" routinely do.
Case Study: California
Also examined were the census results for California, the state with both the greatest number of immigrants — over a quarter of the national total, including the largest concentrations by far of Mexicans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Vietnamese, Filipinos, and many other immigrant groups — and with the greatest number of people in prisons and jails.
Overall, native-born men 18 to 39 in California have higher incarceration rates than the rest of the United States, while the foreign-born have lower rates in California compared to the rest of the country.
The total incarceration rate for the native born is more than one percentage point higher in California than in the rest of the country (4.5 percent to 3.4 percent). In contrast, the incarceration rate for the foreign born in California was less than half the foreign-born rate in the rest of the country (0.4 percent to 1.0 percent).
The CILS Study: Ethnicity, Family, Socioeconomic Status, and Education
To explore patterns of crime and incarceration among these populations in more depth, data from the Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study (CILS), a decade-long panel study whose last phase of data collection ended in 2003, were used. The CILS study conducted three major surveys to follow the progress of a large sample of youths representing 77 different nationalities in Southern California (San Diego) and South Florida (Miami and Ft. Lauderdale).
The principal nationalities represented in the San Diego sample, the focus for this article, were Mexicans, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians, Chinese, and smaller groups of other children of immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.
In the third and last wave of surveys carried out during 2001-2003, the respondents were in their mid-20s (the mean age was 24.2, ranging from 23 to 27), and although the majority had remained in the city and the region, the rest were located in 27 different states plus the District of Columbia and a few military bases overseas. The survey, which included questions about arrests and/or jail time, was supplemented with a complete check of federal prison, California State Department of Corrections, and local county jail records against all of the original respondents in the baseline sample.
The San Diego baseline sample (drawn in 1991) was divided evenly by gender. By nativity, 56 percent were foreign born and 44 percent were native born (second generation). Between two-thirds and four-fifths of the foreign-born children from Mexico, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia had fathers and mothers who never completed secondary-level schooling; but 38 percent of Filipino mothers had college degrees, as did a third of Chinese fathers and mothers — well above US norms at that time.
Neighborhood poverty rate differentials were wider still: The proportion of children growing up in inner-city neighborhoods of concentrated poverty (where more than 50 percent of all residents were below the poverty line) ranged from over three-fifths (62 percent) of the Cambodian and Laotian children, about half of the Mexican children (48 percent), and 28 percent of the Vietnamese, to only four percent of the Chinese and two percent of the Filipinos.
Overall, 16 percent of the males in the CILS sample but less than three percent of the women had ever been arrested by the police, and 12 percent of the men but less than two percent of the women had been imprisoned. In most cases, imprisonment involved being convicted and sentenced for committing a crime, although the survey did not ask respondents to specify the nature of the violation or the circumstances.
The Mexicans were about twice as likely to report having been arrested and incarcerated as all of the other groups (as well as reporting that family members had been arrested and incarcerated). Given the huge size of the Mexican-origin second generation compared to all other groups in the United States, this is a finding fraught with implications for the future.
Specifically, 28 percent of Mexican-origin men in the sample reported having been arrested and 20 percent reported having been incarcerated in the years since 1995 — i.e., between the ages of 18 and 24 — a much higher proportion than the Vietnamese men, who came next at 17 percent arrested and 15 percent incarcerated, as well as the smaller samples of other Asians and other Latin Americans,with rates of arrest and incarceration approximating the latter.
Even the reported degree of arrest and incarceration among the Laotians and Cambodians (just under 10 percent)was substantial. Moreover, among males who were arrested and incarcerated, the native born were significantly more likely to have become ensnared with the criminal justice system than the foreign born, reflecting the national-level data presented earlier on adult men between the ages of 18 and 39.
Family structure, academic GPA, school suspensions, inactive status, education attained, and being physically threatened and offered drugs in high school — data gathered from the first and second surveys in the study (in 1992 and 1995) — all showed strong linear relationships with arrest and incarceration, especially among males. That is, respondents from single-parent families, with low GPAs, a history of multiple school suspensions and inactive school status, who were physically threatened or offered illegal drugs more than twice in high school, and with no high school diploma, were much more likely to be arrested and incarcerated.
More consequential still, given the importance for public policy of the Mexican case, the effect of Mexican ethnicity, which is initially strongly associated with incarceration when the demographic and socioeconomic measures are considered, washes out when the measures of school status are subsequently entered in multivariate analyses (especially suspensions, school inactivity, and lower GPA). This suggests that measures of school status — and not ethnicity as such — "explain" the Mexican case.
These results are enlightening up to a point. While they highlight significant patterns and predictors of criminal justice outcomes, and depict the segmentation of socioeconomic mobility trajectories between and within ethnic groups and generational cohorts, they are nonetheless constrained in depicting the complex mechanisms and contexts through which those outcomes are produced.
Discussion: Confirmatory Results from Other Studies, Now and Then
These results from the 2000 census confirm an earlier study by economists Kristin Butcher and Anne Morrison Piehl based on data from the 1980 and 1990 censuses. A new analysis by those authors demonstrates that the results cannot be dismissed as a function of deportations, deterrence, or artifacts of the data (and point instead to self-selection factors in immigration to the United States). Taken together, they provide consistent and compelling evidence over a period of three decades, raising significant questions about conventional theories of acculturation and assimilation.
The finding that incarceration rates are much lower among immigrant men than the national norm, despite their lower levels of education and greater poverty, but increase significantly over time in the United States for those who arrived as children and especially among the second generation, suggests that the process of "Americanization" can lead to downward mobility and greater risk of involvement with the criminal justice system for a significant minority of this population.
Other scholars, such as sociologist Robert J. Sampson and colleagues, have addressed similar questions concerning immigration and crime and conclude that increased immigration is actually a major factor associated with lower crime rates. Sampson's Chicago study revealed that Latin American immigrants are less violent and less likely than the second and third generations to commit crimes even when they live in dense communities with high rates of poverty. Studies by sociologists Matthew Lee and Ramiro Martínez of homicides in three high-immigration border cities (San Diego, El Paso, and Miami), and of drug violence in Miami and San Diego, have come to similar conclusions. Their findings further refute putative linkages between immigration and criminality.
Relevant data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (known as Add Health) has further facilitated the analysis of intragenerational and intergenerational differences in health characteristics and risk behaviors among a nationally representative sample of adolescents.
Studies by sociologist Kathleen Mullan Harris, and by sociologists Hoan Bui and Ornuma Thingniramol, have found that second-generation youth were more prone to engage in risk behaviors (delinquency, violence, and substance abuse) than foreign-born youth. Among foreign-born youth, the longer their time in and exposure to the United States, the greater was their propensity to engage in each of the risk behaviors measured. Controlling for socioeconomic status, family structure, degree of parental supervision, and neighborhood contexts actually increased the protective aspects of the immigrant first generation on both health and risk behavior indices. In their analyses, every first-generation nationality had significantly fewer health problems and engaged in fewer risk behaviors than the referent group of native non-Hispanic whites.
In a sense, these systematic findings should not come as news, for they are not new —merely forgotten and overruled by popular myth. In the first three decades of the 20th century, during another era of mass immigration, three major government commissions came to much the same conclusions.
The Industrial Commission of 1901, the [Dillingham] Immigration Commission of 1911, and the [Wickersham] National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement of 1931, each sought to measure how immigration resulted in increases in crime. Instead each found lower levels of criminal involvement among the foreign born but higher levels among their native-born counterparts, noting that a disproportionate number of the incarcerated had foreign-born parents. If there was an "immigrant crime problem" it was not found among the immigrants, but among their US-born sons, who had a different frame of reference than their parents and faced an entirely different set of circumstances.
Conclusions and Implications
Because many immigrants, especially labor migrants from Mexico and Central America and refugees from Southeast Asia, are young men who have arrived with very low levels of education, conventional wisdom — both in the form of nativist stereotype as well as standard criminological theory — tends to associate them with high rates of crime and incarceration. The unauthorized entry and visa overstays of many, framed as an assault against the "rule of law" by pundits and politicians (most notoriously by a House of Representatives bill, passed in December 2005, which would make felons of all "illegal" immigrants and criminalize those who assist them), reinforces the stereotypical association of immigration and criminality in much public discourse. This association flourishes in a post-9/11 climate of fear and ignorance where "terrorism" and "losing control of our borders" are often mentioned in the same breath, if without any evidence to back them up.
But correlation is not causation. In fact, immigrants have the lowest rates of imprisonment for criminal convictions in American society. Both the national and local-level findings presented here turn conventional wisdom on its head and present a challenge to criminological theory as well as to sociological perspectives on "straight-line assimilation."
For every ethnic group without exception, the census data show an increase in rates of criminal incarceration among young men from the foreign-born to the US-born generations, and over time in the United States among the foreign born — exactly the opposite of what is typically assumed both by standard theories and by public opinion on immigration and crime.
Paradoxically, incarceration rates are lowest among immigrant young men, even among the least educated and the least acculturated among them, but they increase sharply among the US born and acculturated second generation, especially among the least educated — evidence of downward assimilation that parallels patterns observed for marginalized native minorities.
What is more, these patterns have now been observed consistently over the last three decennial censuses, a period that spans precisely the eras of mass immigration and mass imprisonment — and they recall similar findings reported by three major commissions during the first three decades of the 20th century, a previous era of mass migration and crime concerns.
Nativity emerges in this analysis as a stronger predictor of incarceration than education. When immigration and generational status are taken into account, the association between (lower) education and (higher) crime and incarceration rates is complicated in ways not anticipated by canonical perspectives.
It is in the context of the study of immigrant groups and generational cohorts that such paradoxes are revealed, further underscoring the importance of connecting the research literatures on immigration and on crime and imprisonment, which have largely ignored each other — to the impoverishment of both and to the enrichment of popular prejudice.
Given the limitations of both criminal justice statistics and cross-sectional national data, including the fact that nativity and generation are not taken into account in official statistics (which instead lump all such variables into one-size-fits-all racial categories), the longitudinal CILS data set was used to probe the determinants and dynamics of arrest and incarceration outcomes in a panel of young adult children of immigrants observed across the span of a decade, from ages 14 to 24 on average. The results are clearly patterned, interrelated, and cumulative, and suggest that much of the determination of arrest and incarceration outcomes in early adulthood can be traced to specifiable factors, events, and contexts observable and measurable in early to mid-adolescence.
In the process, although the findings presented here must be considered preliminary, they underscore the value of comparative longitudinal studies and of mixed-methods research, combining quantitative and qualitative approaches across a significant span of the life course, from early adolescence to early adulthood.
They also indicate the importance of bringing criminological research into the study of the incorporation of immigrants and their children born or raised in the United States. Serious efforts along these lines would add significantly to our store of empirical knowledge and help to develop both better social science and more informed public opinion about two highly consequential and highly charged areas of American national life.
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Originally published on the Migration Information Source (www.migrationinformation.org), a project of the Migration Policy Institute.
Rubén G. Rumbaut is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of numerous books and essays on immigration issues, including Immigrant America: A Portrait (with Alejandro Portes; University of California Press, new 3rd edition, 2006), and has directed (with Portes) the landmark Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study (CILS) since 1991.
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