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Immigrants Commit Less Crime, President Trump

BU researcher: native-born citizens more likely to break the law

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After a dozen studies, Christopher Salas-Wright says his research over the last four years is loud and clear: immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans.

Salas-Wright, a School of Social Work assistant professor of human behavior, says he and other researchers haven’t yet collected the data to compare criminality between legal immigrants, those here illegally, and native-born Americans. But his finding that immigrants generally are more law-abiding than lifelong US residents has become a media magnet, with stories by CBS and ABC among others, since Trump’s claims when he was running for president that Mexico sends murderers and rapists here. Salas-Wright’s studies have been funded by the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.

When it comes to crime rates among immigrants and native-born Americans, Salas-Wright says: “This is not a particularly controversial issue among researchers.” His conclusions are “consistent with theorizing and other research, large-scale and small-scale, finding the same pattern that we see: less offending, less violent crime, less nonviolent crime, less substance abuse, fewer mental health problems, lower rates of gambling.…One of the reasons I started getting into this is that often immigrants aren’t really well understood by many people.”

To compile his research, Salas-Wright combs through self-reported data in surveys of Americans by the NIH and the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. While self-reporting can be problematic, he says, the finding of immigrant noncriminality “does converge quite nicely with other forms of data coming from police” and other sources.

His most publicized paper, “The Immigrant Paradox,” published in 2014 in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, reported that “immigrants are significantly less antisocial despite being more likely to have lower levels of income, less education, and reside in urban areas. These findings hold for immigrants from major regions of the world, including Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America.”

Another paper, published in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology in 2016, studying adolescents, especially those 15 to 17 years old, again found immigrants “significantly less likely” than US-born peers to engage in crime, violence, and drug abuse.

Salas-Wright, who came to BU in June 2016, is seeking funding for a new study on immigrants as crime victims. “We see that immigrants are less likely to be involved in crimes and problem behavior. So our next step is to try and understand whether immigrants are more or less likely to be victimized in the United States,” he says. “Does it look different from immigrants from different regions of the world? How do things like discrimination play into that?”

Photo of Christopher Salas-Wright.

Salas-Wright’s research has drawn media attention amid President Trump’s assertions of immigrants’ criminality. Photo by Marsha Miller/University of Texas at Austin

Salas-Wright discussed his research with BU Today.

BU Today: Donald Trump was elected president partially on claims that immigrants bring a lot of crime to the United States. But your research doesn’t show that.

Salas-Wright: Our studies were looking at nonviolent or violent crime rates, substance abuse, mental health problems, problem gambling, Again and again, we find that immigrants tend to take part in those behaviors at a low rate compared to those born in the United States. We see it actually across immigrant generations. Not only is it first generation immigrants, born in a foreign country, who report lower rates; immigrant children or grandchildren tend to resemble the US-born. Assertions that immigrants are committing crime at higher rates than US-born don’t match up to anything we have seen with multiple national data files.

Trump famously said Mexico is sending us rapists and drug dealers. He invited family members of some people murdered by someone foreign-born to his recent speech to Congress. Do you look specifically at those crimes?

We look at crimes that would be violent crimes that could result in a fatality. The surveys we look at don’t ask a particular question about specific crimes. They ask if you’ve seriously attacked someone with a weapon, have you attacked someone with an intent to seriously cause harm, getting into a fight with a romantic partner, hitting someone so hard you injure them, getting into a lot of fights that you started, using a weapon in a fight, doing things you can be arrested for.

Why over time do immigrants tend to become more likely to commit a crime? What’s wrong with us Americans?

I don’t think we have definitive answers for that yet. There are a couple of theories. One is that immigrants are a unique population. If you’re going to pick up from El Salvador, whether with documentation or without documentation, and move several thousand miles to a country you’ve never been to or maybe just visited before, you have a lot invested. You want to play by the rules. Dealing with a foreign country’s justice system often feels very scary. And if you’re thinking about deportation, the last thing you want to do is be involved in things that would get you in trouble.

We’re working on two projects to understand why immigrants over time tend to resemble natives in terms of crime and other sorts of related problem behaviors. One of the theories, documented with adolescents in Miami and Los Angeles—we see discrimination, cultural stress, feeling like you don’t quite belong. Those factors can increase the likelihood of young people becoming more likely to be involved in bad behaviors.

You’ve written that immigrants being law-abiding versus natives is “contrary to traditional social science theorizing.” Why?

Being lower-income and of lower educational status are risk factors for involvement in a lot of adverse behaviors. Immigrants tend to be lower-income than the US-born. They tend to be of lower education levels. We still see they’re less likely than the US-born to have as many health issues and be involved in problem behaviors. When you look at research conducted with native-born Americans, you do see experiencing economic disadvantage places people at a greater likelihood of getting into problems and enacting problem behavior.

10 Comments
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

10 Comments on Immigrants Commit Less Crime, President Trump

  • Missy on 05.11.2017 at 6:41 am

    Trump is talking about “illegal” immigrants who by definition are committing a crime. Trump is married to an immigrant. Immigrants and illegal immigrants are not the same population of subjects because by definition one group has already shown greater respect for our laws. Lastly, even if illegal immigrants do not commit any crimes other than breaking our immigration laws they are still by definition criminals.

    • Jane on 05.11.2017 at 1:18 pm

      You’re mistaken on several fronts, and it’s this ignorance of the facts, and ensuing false narrative, that is being abused by this current administration and targets certain groups of people and not others. There is a difference between “improper entry”, which is hopping a fence into the US, and “unlawful presence”, which is overstaying your visa or other legal entry. The first is a crime, the second commands a civil penalty. The majority of undocumented immigrants arrived here legally and overstayed, making them NOT criminals under the law. Further, ask yourself if ICE is looking for redheads names Jane Smith, a Canadian living here past her visa, or if they’re targeting Juan Lopez. Before you make a comment, take the time to inform yourself.

      • Missy on 05.11.2017 at 4:47 pm

        You are obviously trying to solve your cognitive dissonance by likening someone intentionally overstaying a visa to someone doing so by accident or by virtue of them losing their passport. Trying to paint a person who knowingly overstays a visa as someone would be documented but for some fault of the system is pure rubbish. To do so require me to intentionally ignore the “intent” associated with deliberately overstaying a visa and for me to accept these person as “victims” of some outrageous regulatory trap. As for who is most likely to encounter ICE it logically follows that this should be proportionate to the number of people from each country who are here illegally/undocumented. Thus, while it may appear that people from country X are an over represented group, it is also quite probable that this is not due to racism per se but simply because there are more “undocumented” people here from that particular country which increases the odds of ICE agent catching one of them.

      • Glenn on 05.12.2017 at 9:07 am

        Jane, I think your are mistaken on several fronts and it is your ignorance of the “LAWS” of this country. How would you know, whether or not ICE is looking for redheads?? As usual false narrative on your part. I would suggest that you you should take time to inform your self over the summer break.

  • Web on 05.11.2017 at 8:10 am

    I have trouble taking these results or the professor’s premise seriously. First, the President’s (and many other’s) claims of criminality were associated with “illegal immigrants” not “immigrants” as a whole. That is an enormously different demographic and this is a common contrivance to conflate the two Secondly, depending on subject’s self reporting of behavior in a health study to develop statistics of criminal behavior is deeply flawed. Would any reasonable person expect someone in the country without legal status to self report crimes they were associated with regardless of the study’s context?

  • Chris on 05.11.2017 at 8:59 am

    I believe the politicians, including President Trump are concerned with ILLEGAL immigration, not legal immigration. I would venture to guess that 100% of Illegal immigrants have broken the law. Might be a stretch, but perhaps the title illegal breaks it down.

  • Ronnie R. on 05.11.2017 at 9:22 am

    Illegal immigrants by definition are … criminals.

  • gman on 05.11.2017 at 9:42 am

    Here’s something to think about: The less people respect our nation’s leadership, lawmakers, and our police, the more crimes will be committed. When people don’t respect the system, the more crimes will be committed. The American people are getting fed up with government and bipartisan politics, fed up with corporations influencing law makers in a way where the working man is left behind to struggle while the rich get richer, and the banks continue to reap on the backs of hard working people, the more crime will be committed. When people’s health care is stripped away and they are forced to pay for what they can’t afford, more crimes will be committed. The more black people are incarcerated when the Caucasian person who committed the same crime is not, well, this discrimination will lead to more crimes committed. I’m a getting the point across yet? This research is completely irrelevant in relation to solving the problem of crime in this country. People are following the queer ladder of success because they feel the system is stacked against them so why bother trying to do things with honesty and integrity? After all, our law makers don’t appear to be acting with honesty and integrity the people deserve from their elected leaders. We do not live in a country with a level playing field for success. That’s not to say people can’t rise upward in their social and economic status, they can, but its not easy by any means, and many in the lower economic classes view this as a waste of time. The closer we get to a level playing field, the less crimes will be committed. How can you convince a person to trust the system, to trust the banks, when despite the billions they earn off mortgage interest each year from our sweat equity, they collapse and need to be bailed out. Then once bailed out, they take millions and dish it out in bonuses to the very executives that put us in the mess in the first place, citing contracts that need to be honored. What a joke, and the bigger the joke gets, the more crimes committed.

    • Missy on 05.12.2017 at 7:42 am

      You are right and thanks to the integrity of a consummate public servant (Rod Rosenstein), the quintessential example of a lawman gone wrong (Comey) has been “fired” and we can now begin the long process of healing the soiled image of the FBI which is the agency charged with investigating corrupt politicians.

  • Andrew Wolfe on 05.11.2017 at 8:23 pm

    These numbers sound as phony as a three-dollar bill. When you’re counting immigrants, and including those who have been here legally for decades, it is an offensive refusal to engage the question of those here illegally. I’ve helped people immigrate and gain citizenship legally. They won’t commit crimes after working so hard through the system, just as the people who entered legally through Ellis Island a century ago.

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