Legal and illegal immigrants are far less likely than nativeborn Americans to be incarcerated for crimes, according to a new statistical analysis of 2000 Census data.
The findings were released Monday by the Immigration Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based group that studies contributions by immigrants.
Researchers said their results stand in sharp contrast to widely held beliefs that immigration and criminal activity are closely linked.
Such misconceptions persist among lawmakers, the media and the general public, which undermines development of reasoned public responses to both immigration and crime, said the study’s lead researcher, Ruben Rumbaut, a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine.
Despite the data, the myth persists, Rumbaut said. “It’s almost like it’s in the DNA of American society and you can’t shake it off.”
Rumbaut said researchers found that while the population of illegal immigrants doubled since 1994 to an estimated 12 million, the nation’s violent crime rate declined 34.2 percent during the same period, as did property crime, by 26.4 percent.
Researchers also examined the ethnicity and national origin of incarcerated men, ages 18 and 39 who make up most of the prison population. The incarceration rate among the native-born U.S. population was 3.5 percent, while the incarceration rate among the foreign-born population was a far lower — 0.7 percent.
It’s unclear whether the trend holds true locally. Mesa, Chandler and Tempe police departments don’t track nationalities of those they arrest, officials with the agencies said.
However, of the nearly 3,000 Hispanics in Maricopa County jails, about 1,000 are illegal immigrants, said Sheriff Joe Arpaio. He, along with County Attorney Andrew Thomas, has been arresting illegal immigrants as human smugglers — barred by recent state law that some legislators, advocates and judges have said was meant to target “coyotes” who smuggle in immigrants.
The center’s new analysis is consistent with a series of federal studies dating to 1901 that show immigrants are less prone to criminal activity than U.S.-born residents, Rumbaut said. They tend to be on their best behavior to avoid attracting disparagement of nativeborn residents.
Still, some elected officials feel voters support their fight against illegal immigration and are proceeding with plans to further their efforts. On Monday, the Maricopa County’s Sheriff Office reached an agreement with federal officials to train local deputies to enforce immigration laws — a task that was solely the responsibility of federal authorities.
“The citizens of this county, and across the nation, want law enforcement to help in the fight of illegal immigration,” Arpaio said in a statement.
And some polls show many Americans support that.
In May, the Pew Hispanic Center released a review of several surveys showing a significant majority of Americans see illegal immigration as a very serious problem.
A month earlier, the Pew Research Center for People and the Press released a survey showing a majority of Valley residents believe most immigrants are in the United States illegally.
However, the same poll also revealed that fewer Americans today think immigrants commit more crimes than U.S.-born citizens. About 30 percent of Americans still believed that in a 2006 survey, compared with 62 percent in a 1993 poll. In an interview Monday, Arpaio said he gets thousands of e-mails from people across the nation who support his efforts against illegal immigration.
“I think that’s a good barometer for what the silent majority of this country wants,” he said. He added that it’s important to distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants. His own parents were legal immigrants from Italy. “My father came here, he never violated anything,” Arpaio said. “He opened some Italian grocery stores and made something out of himself.” On the other hand, illegal immigrants “are criminals when they get here,” because they knowingly break immigration laws, Arpaio said.
— Tribune writers Katie McDevitt, Christian Richardson and Nick Martin contributed to this report.