04/08/2016 04:29 pm ET Updated Apr 09, 2017

For Undocumented Immigrants, Simply Existing Has Become a Crime

During his June 16, 2015 presidential announcement speech, Republican candidate Donald Trump opined, "[Mexico is] sending people that have lots of problems. ... They're bringing crime. They're rapists." This immigrant-as-criminal narrative, historically rooted in political fear mongering rather than provable fact, has infiltrated public opinion and translated to laws targeting foreign-born people since the early 20th century. However, statistical data repeatedly disprove the myth of immigrant criminality.

The American Immigration Council (AIC) reports that immigrants are less likely than American-born individuals to be in prison. Data from the 2010 American Community Survey indicate that "roughly 1.6 percent of immigrant males age 18-39 are incarcerated, compared to 3.3 percent of the native-born." These numbers mirror the 1980, 1990, and 2000 censuses, in which native-born citizens were two to five times more likely than immigrants to be incarcerated. Furthermore, economists Kristin Butcher and Anne Morrison Piehl have written that lower incarceration rates among immigrants are not the result of deportation threats; they note, "Immigrants appear to be self-selected to have low criminal propensities."

In 2008, Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson published the results of a study concerning violent acts committed in Chicago between 1995 and 2003. Sampson concluded that "first-generation immigrants (those born outside the United States) were 45 percent less likely to commit violence than third-generation Americans, adjusting for individual, family, and neighborhood background. Second-generation immigrants were 22 percent less likely to commit violence than the third generation." Additionally, people living in neighborhoods with a higher concentration of foreign-born residents demonstrated a lower propensity toward violent crime, leading Sampson to write that immigration may have a "protective" effect.

Indeed, as Sampson notes and city-specific crime data confirm, "Cities of concentrated immigration are some of the safest places around." Metropolitan centers like New York, Los Angeles, San Jose, Dallas, and Phoenix, all of which attract large numbers of immigrants, have seen a decline in homicides since 1990. For years, border cities like San Diego and El Paso have had two of the lowest violent crime rates in the country.

Even those who disagree with the claim that non-natives are more law-abiding than the native born admit that they also are not more dangerous. Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank advocating for stricter border controls, conceded that "there's no evidence that immigrants are either more or less likely to commit crimes than anyone else in the population."

Perhaps the most oft-cited indicator that increased immigration does not equate to higher crime rates is the finding that, according to U.S. Census data, "between 1990 and 2013, the foreign-born share of the U.S. population grew from 7.9 percent to 13.1 percent and the number of unauthorized immigrants more than tripled from 3.5 million to 11.2 million" yet "during the same period, FBI data indicate that the violent crime rate declined 48 percent" and "the property crime rate fell 41 percent." These figures reflect a stable nationwide trend of decreasing crime rates and increasing immigration, leading a number of commentators to suggest that immigration might actually lead to a reduction in crime.

This drastic revision of the immigrant-as-criminal narrative is not one that Mr. Trump is likely to accept, but the data indicate that his statements on the issue are nothing more than baseless scare tactics. Still, the U.S. needs to address the reality of policies shaped by attitudes like Trump's. As the ACI researchers note, "Whole new classes of 'felonies' have been created which apply only to immigrants, deportation has become a punishment for even minor offenses, and policies aimed at trying to end unauthorized immigration have been made more punitive rather than more rational and practical." For undocumented immigrants, simply existing has become a crime.