Immigrants Responsible For Drop In Crime?

For the third year in a row, the rate of violent crime in the United States has declined. While criminologists study the drop and look for explanations, Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson has introduced one theory — he says the influx of new immigrants, who tend to engage in fewer violent crimes, has made America safer. Guest host Tony Cox talks with Sampson about his theory and why immigrant communities are relatively less violent.

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TONY COX, host:

Much of the immigration debate is centered on the negative effects of people crossing the border, or at least the perception of such. But new research suggests there is a possible benefit. Immigrants may be making America safer, in fact.

According to a new FBI report, violent crime in the United States is on the decline for the third year in a row. Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson says that's because there's been an influx of new immigrants. Professor Sampson joins us now from his office at Harvard to explain. Professor, thank you for coming on. Welcome.

Professor ROBERT SAMPSON (Sociologist, Harvard University): Thank you.

COX: The FBI report released this Monday shows a drop in the rate of violent crime, meaning over the past few years. You have made this your business to find out why.

My first question is, and now, you've talked about this in your report, whether this drop in violent crime is a cause or a coincidence in connection with the arrival of immigrants. Which is it?

Prof. SAMPSON: Yes, well, let me first say that it's a continuation of what many have referred to as the great American crime decline, which started roughly in the mid '90s, then went down sharply, evened out a little bit and now it's continued its decline. I think last year homicide was down something like seven percent, which is quite substantial.

It's a surprise to many because we often think about the connection of crime to the economy, given the recent economic crisis, many expected crime to go up, but it didn't. And I think that's consistent with a long line of research showing that crime has never tracked the economy very well. So we have to look to other factors.

Given the vast changes in society, a group of scholars including myself have argued that the social changes that have involved the United States must be looked at very carefully. One of these social changes, of course, has to deal with immigration.

In the '90s and continuing to the present, we've seen a great deal of increase in immigration from countries around the world. In fact, as immigration has increased, we've seen correlated declines in the crime rate.

The question is really, are those linked in a way whereby one can be said to cause the other? That's a very difficult question in social science. But new research is beginning to, I think, analyze this in a way that suggests that immigration has to be taken seriously as an explanation for the crime decline.

COX: I'm listening to you carefully and you are using your words very carefully, professor, which is a good thing, I suppose. However, you have not said that it is a cause. You're talking about an explanation, a factor, so does that mean that even though there seems to be a decrease in the numbers of violent crimes, along with an increase in the numbers of immigrants coming from Latin America, for example, there is no way yet to determine if one is actually causing the other?

Prof. SAMPSON: I'd say that the evidence on immigration is as good as the evidence on anything else, including incarceration, policing, other explanations for the drop in crime. Here's why. Research has, first of all, examined the relationship between immigration and crime controlling for accounting for the usual suspects that we look at, including the poverty of families, including the family structure and other factors.

Our research in Chicago, for example, showed that first generation immigrants commit violence at about a 45 percent lower rate than third generation or native-born Americans; second generation immigrants at about a 22 percent lower rate. That's a significant difference and it is not accounted for by the things that we usually look at. So I think that's strong evidence.

Secondly, areas of concentrated immigration, that is to say, in communities where there are high concentrations of immigrants, we see lower crime rates. And that holds whether or not you're a first or second or third generation. That's further evidence.

Thirdly, the evidence shows that this is affecting all groups. It's not just Latinos, for example. White and even black rates of crime are related to immigration status. And then, finally, there are a number of studies coming out now looking at the changes in the crime rate associated with changes in immigration which is a fairly important way to get at this causal question, showing that reductions in crime in the recent era are directly associated with changes in immigration.

About a 10 percent decline in the homicide rate can be attributed to the increase in immigration rate according to this research. So...

COX: I have to stop you, unfortunately, professor, just because our time is up. But I think that the answer that you just gave certainly sheds more light on it. And I know that the research continues in this area and I appreciate your sharing your knowledge with us.

Robert J. Sampson, chairman of the Department of Sociology and professor of the social sciences at Harvard University. Thank you so much again.

Prof. SAMPSON: Thank you.

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