The Myth of Immigrant Criminality and the Paradox of Assimilation

Rubén G. Rumbaut, Ph.D.


February 21, 2007

Because many immigrants to the United States, especially Mexicans and Central Americans, are young men who arrive with very low levels of formal education, popular stereotypes tend to associate them with higher rates of crime and incarceration. The fact that many of these immigrants enter the country through unauthorized channels or overstay their visas often is framed as an assault against the “rule of law,” thereby reinforcing the impression that immigration and criminality are linked. This association has flourished in a post-9/11 climate of fear and ignorance where terrorism and undocumented immigration often are mentioned in the same breath.

But anecdotal impression cannot substitute for scientific evidence. In fact, data from the census and other sources show that for every ethnic group without exception, incarceration rates among young men are lowest for immigrants, even those who are the least educated. This holds true especially for the Mexicans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans who make up the bulk of the undocumented population. What is more, these patterns have been observed consistently over the last three decennial censuses, a period that spans the current era of mass immigration, and recall similar national-level findings reported by three major government commissions during the first three decades of the 20th century. The problem of crime in the United States is not “caused” or even aggravated by immigrants, regardless of their legal status. But the misperception that the opposite is true persists among policymakers, the media, and the general public, thereby undermining the development of reasoned public responses to both crime and immigration.

Among the findings in this report: 

Crime Rates Have Declined as Immigration Has Increased 

  • Even as the undocumented population has doubled to 12 million since 1994, the violent crime rate in the United States has declined 34.2 percent and the property crime rate has fallen 26.4 percent.
  • Cities with large immigrant populations such as Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Miami also have experienced declining crime rates during this period.

Immigrants Have Lower Incarceration Rates than Natives

  • Among men age 18-39 (who comprise the vast majority of the prison population), the 3.5 percent incarceration rate of the native-born in 2000 was 5 times higher than the 0.7 percent incarceration rate of the foreign-born.

  • The foreign-born incarceration rate in 2000 was nearly two-and-a-half times less than the 1.7 percent rate for native-born non-Hispanic white men and almost 17 times less than the 11.6 percent rate for native-born black men.
  • Native-born Hispanic men were nearly 7 times more likely to be in prison than foreign-born Hispanic men in 2000, while the incarceration rate of native-born non-Hispanic white men was almost 3 times higher than that of foreign-born white men.
  • Foreign-born Mexicans had an incarceration rate of only 0.7 percent in 2000—more than 8 times lower than the 5.9 percent rate of native-born males of Mexican descent. Foreign-born Salvadoran and Guatemalan men had an incarceration rate of 0.5 percent, compared to 3.0 percent of native-born males of Salvadoran and Guatemalan descent.
  • Foreign-born Chinese/Taiwanese men had an extremely low incarceration rate of 0.2 percent in 2000, which was three-and-a-half times lower than the 0.7 percent incarceration rate of native-born men of Chinese/Taiwanese descent.
  • The incarceration rate of foreign-born Laotian and Cambodian men (0.9 percent) was the highest among Asian immigrant groups in 2000, but was more than 8 times lower than that of native-born men of Laotian and Cambodian descent (7.3 percent).
  • With the exception of Laotians and Cambodians, foreign-born men from Asian countries had lower incarceration rates than those from Latin American countries, as did their native-born counterparts. This is not surprising given that immigrants from India, Taiwan, China, South Korea, and the Philippines are among the most educated groups in the United States, while immigrants from Cambodia, Laos, Mexico, and Central American countries are among the least educated.

Immigrants Have Lower Incarceration Rates than Natives among High-School Dropouts

  • For all ethnic groups, the risk of imprisonment was highest for men who were high-school dropouts. But among the foreign-born, the incarceration gap by education was much narrower than for the native-born.
  • The highest incarceration rate among U.S.-born men who had not finished high school was seen among non-Hispanic blacks, 22.3 percent of whom were imprisoned in 2000—more than triple the 7.1 percent incarceration rate among foreign-born black high-school dropouts.
  • The incarceration rate of native-born Hispanic men without a high-school diploma in 2000 (12.4 percent) was more than 11 times higher than the 1.1 percent rate of foreign-born Hispanic high-school dropouts.
  • Foreign-born Mexicans without a high-school diploma had an incarceration rate of 0.7 percent in 2000—more than 14 times less than the 10.1 percent of native-born male high-school dropouts of Mexican descent behind bars.
  • Only 0.6 percent of foreign-born Salvadoran and Guatemalan high-school dropouts in 2000 were in prison, which was nearly 8 times lower than the 4.7 percent incarceration rate among native-born men of Salvadoran and Guatemalan descent who lacked high-school diplomas.
  • The 0.9 percent incarceration rate of foreign-born Vietnamese high-school dropouts in 2000 was vastly lower than the 16.2 percent rate of native-born high-school dropouts of Vietnamese descent. The incarceration rate of native-born high-school dropouts of Indian descent (6.7 percent) was far greater than the 0.3 percent rate among foreign-born Indian high-school dropouts.

The Paradox of Assimilation

  • The higher rate of imprisonment for native-born men than foreign-born men highlights a darker side to assimilation than is commonly recognized.
  • The process of assimilation often involves the acquisition by immigrants and their descendants of English-language proficiency, higher levels of education, valuable new job skills, and other attributes that ease their entry into U.S. society and improve their chances of success in the U.S. economy.
  • However, other aspects of assimilation are not as positive. For instance, immigrants, especially those from Latin America, have lower rates of adult and infant mortality and give birth to fewer underweight babies than natives despite higher poverty rates and greater barriers to health care. But their health status—and that of their children—worsens the longer they live in the United States and with increasing acculturation.
  • The children and grandchildren of many immigrants—as well as many immigrants themselves the longer they live in the United States—become subject to economic and social forces, such as higher rates of family disintegration and drug and alcohol addiction, that increase the likelihood of criminal behavior among other natives.
  • The risk of incarceration is higher not only for the children of immigrants, but for immigrants themselves the longer they have resided in the United States. However, even immigrants who had resided in the United States for 16+ years were far less likely to be incarcerated than their native-born counterparts.

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