While some politicians claim immigrants are responsible for bringing in crime, study after study shows that immigrants — both documented and undocumented — commit crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans.
A new paper out of Florida State University substantiates that premise, and it does so by looking at something that previous research had left unexamined: recidivism.
Using data from the Florida Department of Corrections, the FSU study, published Sept. 18 in Justice Quarterly, compared the recidivism rates of foreign-born and native-born individuals formerly incarcerated for felonies and released from custody in Florida. The FSU researchers found immigrants were the ones less likely to commit another felony — by a sizable margin.
“There’s been a lot of prior empirical research on the relationship between immigration and crime, and most of the research has focused on original offending and arrests and incarceration. What we’ve seen from that research is that immigrants are just less criminally involved than non-immigrants,” said Marin Wenger, assistant professor in the College of Criminology and Criminal Justice at FSU, who co-authored the study. “We wanted to see if the same was true for recidivism.”
In “Immigration and Recidivism: What Is the Link?” researchers looked at a sample of 192,556 former Florida felons. Of those, 3,879, or 2 percent, were immigrants, while the rest were native-born. In comparing both groups’ recidivism outcomes, researchers found that 32% of nonimmigrants were reconvicted of a felony offense within three years of release, compared with just 19% of immigrants.
That result held when analyses were repeated to account for within one, two and five years of release.
“I think this just adds to the larger picture that has tried to dispel the myth of the criminal immigrant,” said Wenger. “You know, there’s a very charged public rhetoric about immigrants and the dangerousness and criminality of that group, and empirical research doesn’t support that.
“And so this study fits quite nicely into that larger narrative that any policy that is shaped around making communities safer is a little bit misinformed if it’s focusing on foreign-born individuals.”
To hone in on the link between recidivism and immigration, the researchers controlled for other characteristics that prior studies have found to be related to odds of reoffending. That included factors like gender, age, race and ethnicity, prior felony convictions and whether individuals had been labeled habitual offenders in Florida.
The paper does have its caveats.
Because the immigrant sample did not include foreign-born offenders who were transferred to immigration officials for detention or deportation (rather than released into a Florida community), foreigners with potentially higher chances of reoffending might be underrepresented. In addition, the data was from 2004 to 2011, so it doesn’t reflect the most up-to-date recidivism patterns.
“Because of more recent immigration policy, it’s possible that immigrants are more over-policed than they used to be, in which case they could be showing up in arrests and recidivism rates more so than in the past,” said Wenger. “But it’s an open question. We don’t have the answer to that because we don’t have more recent data.”
Looking forward, Wenger hopes the study leads to more efficient decision-making.
“I think that it’s important for our policies to be evidence-based because we don’t want our law enforcement officers and other criminal justice agents to waste resources,” she said. “We are in a time of very limited resources and so I think we should be focusing on the things that will actually translate into safer communities.
“What our research shows in combination with all this prior research on immigration and crime is that the immigrant community is not the danger. Focusing on them in policy is likely to lead to wasted resources.”