The Reality of Immigrant Criminality: Beyond the Political Propaganda

Written by Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D.

President Obama has recently been pulled back into the immigration debate with media exposure of thousands of immigrant children crossing the nation’s southern border. Once again political elites are calling for the National Guard to secure the border, circulating baseless claims that crossing the borders constitutes a terrorist threat, and arguing that immigrants present a growing crime problem. After nearly two decades of internalizing crime and immigrant propaganda, anti-immigrant groups are confronting busloads of refugee children spewing hate speech at them as they are shuttled back and forth to make-shift camps.  

While President Barack Obama largely avoided the sensationalism of the “dangerous immigrants” discourse during his first term, it was pushed by other political leaders and became the ideological bedrock for many discourses on crime. For over a decade, media talking heads, politicians and law enforcement officials told the American public that they were in danger of another terrorist attack and that it would come by someone crossing the US borders. Xenophobic rhetoric became an easy way for politicians to focus public attention away from domestic social problems and generate fears to advance their agendas and political careers. Claiming that rising crime rates by immigrants and a national crisis forced her hand, Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona signed an illegal immigration bill (SB 1070) into law in May of 2010. A right-wing move that even Ronald Reagan’s record on immigration could not support.  The law gave the police broad powers to stop and detain anyone suspected of being an undocumented immigrant and made it a crime not to carry immigration “papers.” Although proponents of the law could not articulate what made a person “suspect” of being an “illegal immigrant,” they readily claimed there were links between terrorism, drug trafficking, crime rates and immigrants. The law was passed just weeks after the killing of a rancher in southern Arizona by a “suspected smuggler.” Governor Brewer invoked the rancher’s death to advance her legislative agenda and call for the National Guard to secure the borders. The economic crisis, media sensationalism and state politicians’ not so subtle appeals to racism were all used to reconstituted the “crime” threat now packaged as a trait of undocumented immigrants.

But what is the reality of criminality and immigration? Research paints quite a different picture than the propaganda politicians would have us believe. In 2000, the rate of incarceration for native-born men between the ages of 18 and 39 was five times higher than that of foreign-born men (Rumbaut, 2008). And generally, native-born men have an incarceration rate 10 times higher than that of foreign-born men. These statistics suggest that immigrants are not overly represented in criminality. More recently, Akins, Rumbaut, and Stasfield (2009) examined homicides in Austin, Texas, and found the increasing Latino population did not contribute to an increase in homicides, and Kurin and Ousey (2009) examined homicides in large urban areas and found that cities with large undocumented populations had lower rates of homicide as compared to cities that did not have large numbers of undocumented people. Lee and Martinez (2009) examined the research on immigrants and crime and found that undocumented people did not increase the crime rate and many cases actually suppressed it. As the American Immigration Council (2013) aptly reports and the table below shows, “as numerous studies over the past 100 years have shown—immigrants are less likely to commit crimes or be behind bars than the native-born, and high rates of immigration are not associated with higher rates of crime. This holds true for both legal immigrants and the undocumented, regardless of their country of origin or level of education.”

Online Law Enforcement Degree - Incareceration Rates

Source: Rubén G. Rumbaut and Walter A. Ewing (2007). The Myth of Immigrant Criminality and the Paradox of Assimilation: Incarceration Rates among Native and Foreign-Born Men. American Immigration Law Foundation.

The fear of crime has been used to demonize immigrants, particularly Latino immigrants, and to distract the public from domestic problems and most importantly to win political support and elections. Crime propaganda surrounding immigration has become a mainstay of American politics.

Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D.
Associate Dean and Foundation Professor
College of Justice and Safety
School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University


Akins, S., R. Rumbaut, & R. Stasfield (2009). “Immigration, Economic Disadvantage, and Homicide: A Community-Level Analysis of Austin, Texas.” Homicide Studies, 13: 307-314.

American Immigration Council (2013). From Anecdotes to Evidence: Setting the Record Straight on Immigrants and Crime.

Kubrin, C. & G. Ousey (2009). “Immigration and Homicide in Urban America: What’s the Connection?’ Sociology of Crime, Law, and Deviance, 13: 17-32.

Lee, M. & R. Martinez (2009). “Immigration Reduces Crime: An Emerging Scholarly Consensus.” Sociology of Crime, Law, and Deviance, 13: 3-16.

Rumbaut, R.G. (2008). Undocumented Immigration and Rates of Crime and Imprisonment: Popular Myths and Empirical Realities. Paper presented to the Police Foundation National Conference on “The Role of Local Police: Striking a Balance Between Immigration Enforcement and Civil Liberties.” Washington, DC, August 21-22.

Published on August 05, 2014