IMMIGRATIONThe Mythical Tie Between Immigration and Crime

By Krysten Crawford

Published 26 July 2023

Opponents of immigration often argue that immigrants drive up crime rates. Research by Stanford’s Ran Abramitzky and co-authors uncovers the most extensive evidence to date that immigrants are less likely to be imprisoned than U.S.-born individuals.

Opponents of immigration often argue that immigrants drive up crime rates. But newly released research from Stanford economist Ran Abramitzky and his co-authors finds that hasn’t been the case in America for the last 140 years.

The study reveals that first-generation immigrants have not been more likely to be imprisoned than people born in the United States since 1880.

Today, immigrants are 30 percent less likely to be incarcerated than are U.S.-born individuals who are white, the study finds. And when the analysis is expanded to include Black Americans — whose prison rates are higher than the general population — the likelihood of an immigrant being incarcerated is 60 percent lower than of people born in the United States. 

While other research has also debunked claims that immigration leads to more crime, this study of incarceration rates provides the broadest historical look at the relationship between immigration and crime across the country and over time, says author Abramitzky. Abramitzky is the Stanford Federal Credit Union Professor of Economics and senior associate dean of social sciences in the School of Humanities and Sciences, as well as a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR).

The study is detailed in a working paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Using U.S. Census Bureau data, it focuses on immigrants present in the Census regardless of their legal status and on men between the ages of 18 and 40.

“From Henry Cabot Lodge in the late 19th century to Donald Trump, anti-immigration politicians have repeatedly tried to link immigrants to crime, but our research confirms that this is a myth and not based on fact,” says Abramitzky, whose 2022 book, Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success, examines the many misconceptions around immigration.

In their analysis of Census data from 1850 to 2020, Abramitzky and his co-authors find that, compared to U.S.-born individuals, immigrants as a group had higher incarceration rates before 1870 and similar rates between 1880 and 1950. Since 1960, however, immigrants have been less likely to be incarcerated than have the U.S.-born.

According to the study, this is the case for almost every region in the world that is a major source of immigrants to the United States. As of 2019, immigrants from China and eastern and southern Europe were committing the fewest number of crimes — as measured by incarceration rates — relative to U.S.-born individuals.