LiveScience.com Tue Mar 18, 4:11 PM ET
Contrary to popular stereotypes, areas undergoing immigration are associated with lower violence, not spiraling crime, according to a new study.
Harvard University sociologist Robert Sampson examined crime and immigration in Chicago and around the United States to find the truth behind the popular perception that increasing immigration leads to crime.
Sampson's study results, detailed in the winter issue of the American Sociological Association's Contexts magazine, summarizes patterns from seven years' worth of violent acts in Chicago committed by whites, blacks and Hispanics from 180 neighborhoods of varying levels of integration. He also analyzed recent data from police records and the U.S. Census for all communities in Chicago.
Based on assumptions that immigrants are more likely to commit crimes and settle in poor, disorganized communities, prevailing wisdom holds that the concentration of immigrants and an influx of foreigners drive up crime rates.
However, Sampson shows that concentrated immigration predicts lower rates of violence across communities in Chicago, with the relationship strongest in poor neighborhoods.
Not only does immigration appear to be "protective" against violence in poverty areas, violence was significantly lower among Mexican-Americans compared to blacks and whites. Sampson refers to this as the "Latino Paradox," whereby Hispanic Americans do better on a range of social indicators - including propensity to violence - than one would expect, given their socioeconomic disadvantages.
Sampson's analysis also revealed that first-generation immigrants were 45 percent less likely to commit violence than third-generation Americans. Controlling for immigrant generation even narrowed the violence gap between whites and blacks in Chicago by 14 percent.
"The pattern of immigrant generational status and lower crime rates is not restricted to Latinos; it extends to help explain white-black differences as well," Sampson said. "We're so used to thinking about immigrant assimilation that we've failed to fully appreciate how immigrants themselves shape their host society."
Immigration is therefore not just a Hispanic issue; although little noticed, increasing foreign-born diversity among blacks (e.g., from the West Indies and Africa) is associated with lower crime even within segregated black communities.
Sampson's arguments are supported at the national level as well. Significant immigration growth - including by illegal aliens - occurred in the mid-1990s, peaking at the end of the decade. During this time, the national homicide rate plunged. Crime dropped even in immigration hot spots, such as Los Angeles (where it dropped 45 percent overall), San Jose, Dallas and Phoenix.
Reasons commonly cited for the apparent paradox of first generation immigrants, especially Mexicans, are motivation to work, ambition and a desire not to be deported, characteristics that predispose them to low crime. Sampson also argues that contemporary immigrants tend to come from a multitude of cultures around the world where violence isn't rewarded as a strategy for establishing reputation or preserving honor, as in American "street culture."
"In today's society," Sampson said, "immigration and the increasing cultural diversity that accompanies it generate the sort of conflicts of culture that lead not to increased crime but nearly the opposite."