After more than a century of research and analysis, it has become quite clear that immigrants are far less prone to criminal conduct than the native-born population. And yet researcher John R. Lott of the Crime Prevention Research Center has recently claimed to have found evidence that exactly the opposite is true.
Lott’s working paper focuses on one specific claim: that undocumented immigrants in Arizona comprise a disproportionately large share of the state’s prison population, including prisoners convicted of serious crimes like murder and rape.
Aside from the fact that this study contradicts nearly every other piece of serious research on the relationship between immigration and crime (or lack thereof), the author of the study likely added up the wrong numbers in reaching his conclusion.
Another important factor that should be considered in analyzing Lott’s study is that the share of immigrants, documented or otherwise, who make up the prison population is not the same as the share who make up the general population.
If immigrants are disproportionately more likely to be picked up by police for some reason (profiling, for instance), then immigrants might be overrepresented among prisoners even if they commit fewer crimes than the native-born population overall. In other words, prison is not a microcosm of the larger world.
It’s also true that immigrants are increasingly being charged with “illegal re-entry”—which comes with a federal sentence. Therefore, the federal prisons have filled with individuals guilty of no violent crime who pose no risk to public safety. They simply crossed the border without permission one too many times.
Many of these prosecutions are being fed by Operation Streamline, a program begun in 2005 in the southwest of the country under which undocumented border-crossers are rapidly prosecuted in group trials.
Regardless of the many federal prosecutions of immigrants generated by Operation Streamline, immigrants—including the undocumented—are still less likely to end up behind bars than the native-born, and less likely to engage in the behaviors that typically land someone in prison.
In other words, despite the federal government’s concerted efforts to transform more undocumented immigrants into “criminals,” the overwhelming majority are not a threat to anyone.