Contrary to public perception, research shows that immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans. But is this finding true for all immigrant groups, especially the undocumented population? In new research, Javier Ramos and Kayla Alaniz explore the relationship between legal status and recidivism using a group of previously incarcerated individuals in Florida. They find that undocumented and documented individuals have a similar probability for reoffending but that both groups are significantly less likely to reoffend than the native-born.
Undocumented immigration is a contentious issue in the United States. Much of this controversy centers on the assumption that undocumented immigrants are a threat to public safety, which has been compounded by the unprecedented growth of the undocumented population. The number of undocumented immigrants in the United States grew from 3.5 million in 1990 to a record 12.2 million in 2007 but declined in the decade following to 10.5 million in 2017. While more recent estimates of the undocumented population are not yet available, the historic number of migrant crossings at the US-Mexico border today suggests that this figure may again be on the rise.
The dramatic increase in the unauthorized population is largely attributed to changes in immigration policy during the early 1990s. In a 2013 study, Professor Raymond Barranco of the University of Mississippi noted that migration to the United States from Mexico and Central America was traditionally a circular process, whereby newcomers would arrive to work temporarily, and then return home. However, two federal initiatives—Operation Blockade (1993) in El Paso, Texas, and Operation Gatekeeper (1994) in San Diego, California —disrupted this process by increasing surveillance and security along these two border cities. The long-term effect of these policies is that it diverted migrant crossings away from traditional entry points towards more remote and treacherous regions along the US-Mexico border such as the Sonoran Desert. As a result of the increased danger and costs associated with migrating across the US-Mexico border, those who lacked legal authorization chose to remain in the country permanently, thus raising the total numbers of the undocumented population.
Are undocumented immigrants a public safety risk?
According to critics of undocumented immigration, one of the biggest threats associated with undocumented immigrants is their supposed link to criminality. During his announcement for presidency in 2015, then-candidate Donald Trump vilified Mexican immigrants—who account for the largest percentage of the undocumented population—by labeling them as “rapists.” Trump’s depiction of Mexican immigrants as criminals is further bolstered by certain high profile, yet isolated events, such as the deaths of Kate Steinle in San Francisco, California and Mollie Tibbetts in Iowa—both of whom were killed by undocumented immigrants.
Unfortunately, there is limited understanding of the relationship between undocumented immigration and crime. Although research shows that immigrants in general engage in less crime than natives, these studies do not separate the undocumented from the rest of the foreign-born population due to data limitations on legal status (i.e., documented or undocumented). The inability to focus on the undocumented in prior research is problematic because there are reasons to believe why this population would be associated with a higher risk for criminal offending. For example, undocumented immigrants, as a group, possess many characteristics that are often associated with crime, such as being young, male, unmarried, and possessing little formal education. Moreover, even if undocumented immigrants, themselves, do not engage in criminal activity, their arrival in large numbers may have other impacts in the community (e.g., displacing native-born workers) that could lead to higher rates of violence.
Analyzing the relationship between legal status and recidivism
In a recent study, we examined the relationship between legal status and recidivism among previously incarcerated immigrants in Florida. The data for our study included all individuals who were sentenced to a Florida prison after January 1, 2000, and were released between 2004 and 2011. We defined recidivism as reconviction for a felony offense with a new prison sentence imposed within three years of release
Individuals in the study were divided into three groups. Native-born individuals were those born in the United States or any of its outlying territories (e.g., Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands). Documented individuals include those born outside of the United States and coded as “naturalized citizens,” “Mariel Cubans,” or “resident aliens” in the dataset, while undocumented individuals were foreign-born and identified as either “aliens” or “illegal entry.” In all, there were just under 164,000 individuals in the dataset: about 2,000 were identified as documented immigrants, about 1,500 as undocumented immigrants, and about 160,000 as US-born individuals.
Photo by Nitish Meena on Unsplash
The main concern when examining recidivism among foreign-born populations is selection bias or non-random group differences. Unlike the US-born, immigrants convicted of crimes are at risk of being deported, especially those who likely pose the greatest risk to public safety. As a result, it is plausible to assume that immigrants with the highest probability for reoffending would be deported from the United States which would bias any comparisons between US-born and immigrant groups.
To address this issue, we used propensity score matching (PSM). PSM creates a propensity score for each individual, (in this case the likelihood to recidivate), by controlling for factors that are believed to influence reoffending, such as age, gender, race/ethnicity, marital status, prior record, current offense(s), and other characteristics. Individuals from each group are then matched according to similar propensity scores and then re-examined to estimate the likelihood of recidivism.
Undocumented individuals are no more likely to reoffend
We addressed two questions in our study. The first is whether there was any difference in reoffending between formerly incarcerated documented and undocumented individuals. After matching individuals from both groups with similar propensity scores, we found that documented and undocumented individuals have a similar probability of reoffending.
The second question asks: do documented and undocumented individuals differ from the native-born in their propensity to reoffend? To answer this question, we compared each foreign-born group to the native-born, separately. In the first analysis, we matched documented individuals to natives who had a similar propensity score and found that the documented group displayed 18 percent lower odds of recidivating than natives. Similarly, after matching the undocumented group to the native-born, we found that undocumented individuals displayed a 28 percent lower likelihood of recidivism. Figure 1 shows that the comparisons between documented and native and undocumented and native were significantly different from one another, while the comparison between documented and undocumented was not (*p<.05).
Figure 1 – Predicted probabilities of recidivism by legal status
Note: Differences in recidivism percentages reflective of different sample sizes used in the PSM analyses. 789 documented cases were matched to the undocumented group (documented cases matched multiple times), while documented and undocumented individuals were matched 1-to-1 to the native-born.
We need to look more closely at the relationship between legal status and crime
Our findings reveal that formerly incarcerated immigrants are less of a public safety risk than their native-born peers, even after accounting for legal status. While research on the effects of undocumented immigration on crime remains limited, our findings are consistent with those found in previous studies. At the same time, we caution readers from generalizing beyond the study’s context—Florida. Research is currently underway by the University of Wisconsin that examines the relationship between legal status and recidivism in Texas. Texas is an interesting case study to extend our analyses given its large foreign-born and prisoner populations and the state’s hardline stance on immigration. We call on scholars to continue to examine the relationship between legal status and crime. Billions of dollars are spent every year on policies that are justified on the grounds that undocumented immigrants are a public safety risk. Empirical research has overwhelmingly refuted these claims.
- This article is based on the paper, ‘Is Legal Status a Marker for Recidivism? Examining the Reoffending Patterns of Previously Incarcerated Immigrants’, in Crime & Delinquency
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- Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor the London School of Economics.
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