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Debunking the Myth of the ‘Migrant Crime Wave’

Data does not support claims that the United States is experiencing a surge in crime caused by immigrants.

View the entire Myths and Facts About Crime and Justice Reform collection

In the past few months, politicians and certain media outlets have latched on to a narrative that recent immigrants, especially undocumented ones, are causing spikes in crime. Instead of gathering data and examining the issue empirically, they are making this broad assertion based on highly publicized individual incidents of crime by undocumented immigrants. All acts of violence must be taken seriously. But policymakers should not attribute blame to entire classes of people when individuals commit crimes.

The research does not support the view that immigrants commit crime or are incarcerated at higher rates than native-born Americans. In fact, immigrants might have less law enforcement contact compared to nonimmigrants. Focusing on the facts is imperative, especially given that immigration has become a top issue for voters ahead of the election.

Substantial research has assessed the relationship between immigration and crime. Numerous studies show that immigration is not linked to higher levels of crime, but rather the opposite. Studies have also examined the impact of the concentration of immigrants in a community on crime patterns, finding that immigration is associated with lower crime rates and an increase in structural factors — such as social connection and economic opportunity — that are linked to neighborhood safety.

When looking specifically at the relationship between undocumented immigrants and crime, researchers come to similar conclusions. Numerous studies show that undocumented immigration does not increase violent crime; research examining crime rates in so-called sanctuary cities also found no discernable difference when compared to similarly situated cities without sanctuary policies. One study that focused on drug crimes and driving under the influence found that unauthorized immigration status was associated with reductions in arrests for those offenses.

The research also shows that overall, immigrants have a similar or even lower likelihood of incarceration compared to native-born Americans, a trend that holds for immigrants from various source countries. For example, one study found that undocumented immigrants are 33 percent less likely to be incarcerated than people born in the United States. Indications of a negative relationship between immigration and crime also emerge when looking at conviction rates. In a Texas study, undocumented immigrants were found to be 47 percent less likely to be convicted of a crime in 2017 than native-born Americans. More recently, a study looked at census data over a 150-year period; since 1870, incarceration rates of immigrants are actually slightly lower than U.S.-born people and that gap widens in recent years with immigrants 60 percent less likely to be incarcerated than U.S.-born citizens.

Despite claims from conservative media and campaign rhetoric pointing to immigration as the cause of crime increases, there is no evidence that immigration — and in particular the recent influx of immigrants to Democratic-run cities — is causing a “crime wave.” For one, direct data on the causes behind recent increases in crime is limited, especially as it relates to undocumented immigrants. Crime is complicated – attempting to isolate single factors to explain crime trends, especially when the full impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is still being born out, would be misguided. However, some factors to consider are the socioeconomic instability largely caused by the pandemic, gun violence and an increased prevalence of guns in communities, and disruptions to community life and increased social isolation. Although some policymakers and media pundits readily assume a correlation, research does not substantiate the assumption that any increase in crime is caused by the recent influx of immigrants.

What’s more, the arrival of record numbers of immigrants at the United States–Mexico border over the past two years has not corresponded with an overall increase in crime in so-called “blue” cities where many of the recent arrivals have settled. In most places, the opposite has happened — crime, including violent crime, has trended downward (other than larceny and a small increase in robbery) after peaking across the country in 2020. This has been true since the spring of 2022, the year Republican governors, including those in Arizona, Florida, and Texas, began transporting undocumented immigrants to cities with more immigrant-friendly policies, including BostonChicagoNew York, and Washington.

As a recent NBC News analysis shows, crime overall was down in most of the cities targeted by Texas from April 2022 through 2023, though Washington is a notable exception. According to an analysis by the Council on Criminal Justice, crime has dropped since April 2022 across many categories, such as aggravated assault (including assault committed with a firearm) and carjackings, in most of the cities where information was reported. Where increases did occur, including in the categories of robbery and shoplifting, those trends began in 2021, before the current upsurge in undocumented immigrants. Nor has there been a surge in violent crime in states and counties along the U.S-Mexico border corresponding to larger immigration flows. 

In New York, a sanctuary city that has received the most immigrants from Republican-run border states, crime decreased in most major categories in 2023 compared to the year before, as confirmed by a January report from the New York City Police Department. This follows reductions in most crime categories in the city in 2022. New York City remains one of the safest big cities in the country despite sensational claims that it is being overwhelmed by crime.

Although some have tried to portray the areas of New York City where immigrants are temporarily being housed as crime-ridden, the existing data does not support that contention. In four precincts that have large migrant sheltersdata shows no unifying trend in crime rates. One precinct saw a drop in crime rates, two saw a rise, and one remained static.

Narratives equating immigrants with danger and criminality are nothing new. They gain prominence in public discourse in a cyclical fashion, typically after surges in immigration. Waves of immigration by new groups — historically, Irish, Catholic, Jewish, Italian, Mexican, Japanese, Chinese, and German people — were often followed by backlashes linking them with crime and disorder. This is centuries-old discourse aimed primarily at boosting a contemporaneous politics of exclusion, not one seriously concerned about the true causes of crime.

A 1931 report by the National Commission of Law and Enforcement acknowledged this: “The theory that immigration is responsible for crime, that the most recent ‘wave of immigration,’ whatever the nationality, is less desirable than the old ones, that all newcomers should be regarded with an attitude of suspicion, is a theory that is almost as old as the colonies planted by Englishmen on the New England coast.”

Perpetuating this myth today may be counterproductive to public safety, particularly when decision-makers adopt policies that target whole communities. Such policies can potentially fracture communities — for example, by breaking up millions of mixed-status households. They may also harm police-community relationships by increasing the risk that punitive immigration enforcement could increase immigrants’ fear of law enforcement and reluctance to report crime.

Painting all immigrants with a broad brush can perpetuate harmful stereotypes that help foster hostility toward their communities. This in turn can have a detrimental impact on law enforcement’s ability to conduct investigations and eventually hold perpetrators accountable; many people may not report crimes to police or cooperate with an investigation or prosecution due to distrust and fear of retaliation based on their immigration status. It can also detract from efforts to address the reasons why some people commit crime, be it economic conditions, behavioral health issues, or poverty.

All told, the factors that drive crime rates are extraordinarily complex and can rarely be reduced to one cause. Policymakers should refrain from blaming immigrants as a group for increased crime where data does not substantiate those claims. Doing otherwise will hinder the development of effective crime prevention policies that can help make communities safer for everyone.