Combatting the Stereotype of the “Criminal” Immigrants

by: Shuyuan Shen

On March 16, 2019, 50 people were killed and 50 others were wounded in the Christchurch mosque attack in New Zealand. Muslim immigrants again became the focal point in the discussion on Chinese social media. The prevailing commentary on Chinese social media blamed immigrants for the violence, despite the fact that they were actually victims of the attack, and criticized western countries and the “white left” for being too welcoming to Muslim immigrants. These comments are not strange at all for people who are familiar with the anti-immigrant, Islamophobic, and xenophobic environment in Chinese society. Articles and posts consistently portray immigrants as criminals who substantially threaten the safety and harmony of host societies.

China is not alone in this rising, global wave of anti-immigration. The far-right groups in Europe have exerted considerable pressure on their governments to close their borders and turn their back to asylum seekers and refugees. In the United States, president Trump consistently stigmatizes immigrants from Mexico and Central America as drug dealers, criminals, and rapists, and advocates for a physical wall at the US-Mexico border. However, no evidence except several specific crimes and attacks committed by immigrants is presented to support these claims. It is worth asking ourselves if an increase in the immigrant population, in general, will lead to more violence and crime in communities? According to crime statistics and researchers, the answer is no.

Sociologist Graham Ousey from the College of William & Mary and criminologist Charis Kubrin from the University of California-Irvine published a paper on the relationship between immigration and crime in the US in 2018, in which they reviewed 51 published studies from 1994 to 2014.[1] They found that the most common result, which is present in 62% of the existing literature, is a null or nonsignificant association between immigration and crime. Moreover, the majority of studies that find a statistically significant relationship tend to find a negative association. That is to say, higher-level immigration is associated with lower-level crime rates.

Some people argue that it is the “illegal” or undocumented immigrants who are more likely to commit a crime, as they are underrepresented in the official statistics. Nevertheless, this claim is false as well. A recent report published by Cato Institute demonstrates that both legal and illegal immigrants have much lower incarceration rates (0.364%, 0.756%) compared with native-born Americans (1.471%).[2] Adopting fixed-effects regression models for analysis, Michael Light and Ty Miller find that the relationship between undocumented immigration and violent crime is generally negative, if significant at all.[3]

The findings might be surprising at first glance; however, they make a lot of sense when thinking about the reasons they choose to immigrate in the first place. Last summer, I traveled along the US-Mexico border with my graduate school colleagues from the University of Notre Dame to research detention and deportation policy and practice. We heard plenty of heartbreaking stories directly from migrants about their lives in Mexico and Central America. Many of the migrants and asylum seekers were facing substantial threats from their partners and/or local gangs. It should be acknowledged that some of them were incentivized by economic interests and came to the US to find a job. However, no matter what the reasons were, they wished to stay in the US. It would be counterproductive if they chose to expose themselves to the risk of being deported from the United States back to their home countries by committing a crime.

Despite all the facts and studies, President Trump continues to ignorantly attack immigrants and raise money for the proposed border wall–even at the cost of the longest government shutdown in US history. Distressingly, President Trump could benefit electorally from his ignorance. Why? Despite the lower-level crime rates of legal and undocumented immigrants, some of the immigrants did commit crimes due to a wide range of reasons, including the lack of economic opportunity, low level of education, poor integration, discrimination, etc. If the “immigrants are criminals” narrative prevails, immigrants will receive more discrimination both in school and at work and have little chance to be educated and employed. In this way, immigrants are further alienated from mainstream society and might be more likely to commit a crime. The groundless stereotype of immigrants as criminals advocated by President Trump could become a self-fulfilling prophecy, for which he can claim credit in the upcoming 2020 presidential election.

To be clear, I am not saying that migrants never commit crimes. There are indeed some crimes committed by immigrants. What I am arguing, however, is that not all immigrants–legal or undocumented–are criminals, as many politicians and opinion leaders would argue.

In fact, the crime rates of both legal and undocumented immigrants are lower than those of natives. We should stop using immigrants as the scapegoat, and stop blaming immigrants for the illusory safety threat. As the Christchurch mosque attack reminds us, both immigrants and natives are more often the victims of violence and crime rather than the perpetrators of it.

[1] Ousey, Graham C., and Charis E. Kubrin. 2018. “Immigration and crime: Assessing a contentious issue.” Annual Review of Criminology 1: 63-84. 

[2] Landgrave, Michelangelo., and Alex Nowrasteh. 2019. “Criminal Immigrants in 2017: Their Numbers, Demographics, and Countries of Origin.” Cato Institute. Retrieve on March 26, 2019 at https://object.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/pubs/pdf/irpb-11.pdf 

[3] Light, Michael., and Ty Miller. 2018. Does Undocumented Immigration Increase Violent Crime? Criminology 56 (2): 370–401.

Shuyuan Shen is a graduate of the Master of Global Affairs program at the University of Notre Dame. He earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and political science from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Previously, he served as an intern at the Center for Child Rights and Corporate Social Responsibility in Shenzhen and a data journalist at Initium Media in Hong Kong. His research interests focus on the political identification and participation of migration and refugees. Shuyuan speaks Mandarin and Cantonese. 

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