Criminology Immigration, Crime, and Justice
Ramiro Martínez
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 November 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0054


The study of immigration, crime, and justice broadly involves research on the effects of immigration on crime or the extent of criminal involvement between the foreign born and the native born. Criminologists tend to favor examining the impact of immigration or percent foreign born, apart from other social and economic factors, on violent crime rates including homicide at the community or city level, though some have also looked at differences in involvement between immigrants and native-born individuals. Some social scientists also examine the effects of immigration on justice or public safety by using measures of incarceration as a proxy for criminal involvement. This includes all types of institutionalization including prisons, jails, and halfway houses. However one chooses to examine immigration and crime, the findings rarely support a positive relationship between immigration and crime.

General Overviews

A few texts and edited books on immigration and crime are available. Martinez and Valenzuela 2006 covers a variety of original research using various data sources and can be used as a supplemental book in survey courses in criminology or criminal justice, or as an anchor text in more specialized courses on immigration and crime. For graduate students and researchers new to the topic, Martinez 2002 offers a comprehensive overview and discussion of data strengths and limitations in immigration and violence. Marshall 1997 includes research and theoretical perspectives on crime across Europe and the United States. Although over ten years old, Tonry 1997 remains important for both old and new researchers and provides a strong foundation for students and researchers interested in immigration and crime from a cross-national perspective.

Data Sources

Data sources on patterns and trends in immigration and crime are very rare, since the subject has just reemerged as an important research topic. There are three primary types of data: special data compiled by various criminal agencies, including police and corrections, which are compiled into the Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics; injury and death statistics from public health agencies, such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which are stored at the Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS); and data from population surveys, including the U.S. National Crime Victimization Survey. In some cases Hispanic/Latino ethnicity is used as a proxy for immigration status. Researchers generally regard data as more reliable when similar patterns and trends are established across data sources. Most of these datasets are stored in the National Archive of Criminal Justice and are available to researchers.

Immigration and Crime

The study of violent crime patterns and trends is connected to the study of immigration, especially at the community and city level. Butcher and Piehl 1998 was one of the first recent studies to introduce researchers to the study of immigration and crime at the city level. Hagan and Palloni 1999 is essential reading for students and researchers interested in immigrant Latino stereotypes and macro-level criminology, as is the work of Lee, et al. 2001 at the community level in three border cities. Although several years old, review essays by Tonry 1997 and Martinez and Lee 2000 remain useful sources on major theoretical and methodological issues in the study of immigration and crime in the United States and elsewhere. Researchers interested in the study of immigrant generations and crime will find Sampson, et al. 2005 essential reading. Excellent recent additions to the research literature include Menjívar and Bejarano 2004, a qualitative study of immigration and crime.

  • Butcher, Kristin F., and Anne Morrison Piehl. 1998. Cross-city evidence on the relationship between immigration and crime. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 17:457–493.

    DOI: 10.1002/(SICI)1520-6688(199822)17:3<457::AID-PAM4>3.0.CO;2-F 10.1002/(SICI)1520-6688(199822)17:3<457::AID-PAM4>3.0.CO;2-FSave Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Finds that after controlling for the demographic characteristics of the cities, recent immigrants appear to have no effect on crime rates. In a secondary analysis of individual data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, they find that youth born abroad are statistically significantly less likely than native-born youth to be criminally active.

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  • Hagan, John, and Alberto Palloni. 1999. Sociological criminology and the mythology of Hispanic immigration and crime. Social Problems 46:617–632.

    DOI: 10.1525/sp.1999.46.4.03x0265e 10.1525/sp.1999.46.4.03x0265eSave Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Find that Hispanic or Latino immigrants have lower or equal rates of incarceration than U.S. citizens.

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  • Lee, Matthew T., Ramiro Martinez Jr., and Richard Rosenfeld. 2001. Does immigration increase homicide? Negative evidence from three border cities. Sociological Quarterly 42:559–580.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1533-8525.2001.tb01780.x 10.1111/j.1533-8525.2001.tb01780.xSave Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This study of Miami, Florida; El Paso, Texas; and San Diego, California, shows that, controlling for other influences, immigration generally does not increase levels of homicide among Latinos and African Americans.

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  • Martinez, Ramiro, Jr., and Matthew T. Lee. 2000. “On immigration and crime.” In Criminal justice 2000. Vol. 1, The nature of crime: Continuity and change. Edited by Gary LaFree, 485–524. Washington, DC: Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.

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    Review essay that surveys the vast body of theoretical and empirical works on the relationship between immigration and crime in 20th-century America.

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  • Menjívar, Cecilia, and Cynthia L. Bejarano. 2004. Latino immigrants’ perceptions of crime and police authorities in the United States: A case study from the Phoenix metropolitan area. Ethnic and Racial Studies 27:120–148.

    DOI: 10.1080/0141987032000147968 10.1080/0141987032000147968Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Based on interviews with immigrants from Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico, and on participant observation conducted in Phoenix, Arizona, the authors identify three immigrant-specific factors that affect immigrants’ perceptions of crime and the police: the immigrants’ former experiences with crime and their homelands’ justice system; contacts with U.S. immigration officials; and the social networks through which they learn what to expect in the United States from U.S. police authorities, as well as when and where to expect criminal activity, and who may be a potential criminal.

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  • Sampson, Robert J., Jeffrey D. Morenoff, and Stephen Raudenbush. 2005. Social anatomy of racial and ethnic disparities in violence. American Journal of Public Health 95:224–232.

    DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.2004.037705 10.2105/AJPH.2004.037705Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    The authors look at three waves of data from Chicago and find that the odds of committing violence are higher for blacks than whites, and lower for Latinos than whites. These gaps are explained by marital status of parents, immigrant generation, and dimensions of neighborhood social context including high immigration composition. Concentrated immigration’s impact holds when controlling for individual-level immigration status.

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  • Tonry, Michael. 1997. Ethnicity, crime, and immigration. In Crime and justice: A review of research. Vol. 21, Ethnicity, crime, and immigration: Comparative and cross-national perspectives. Edited by Michael Tonry, 1–29. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    One of the first recent essays that shows that first generation immigrants tend to have lower crime rates than natives and that second generation immigrants tend to have higher rates. Predates the current immigration boom.

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Immigration and Incarceration or Institutionalization

Research on immigration and incarceration has grown over the past decade. One of the first studies in this area is Butcher and Piehl 1998, and one of the most recent and comprehensive studies on immigration and corrections is Butcher and Piehl 2008. Hickman and Suttorp 2008 adds to the debate over immigrant deportation, while Phillips, et al. 2002 and Phillips, et al. 2006 contribute to the literature on the consequences of deportation. Rowland 2002 reminds us of the obstacles faced by the foreign- and native born in attempting rehabilitation. Rumbaut and Ewing 2007 surveys the literature and reports that immigrants in general and immigrant groups in particular are incarcerated at lower levels than other racial/ethnic groups.

  • Butcher, Kristin F., and Anne Morrison Piehl. 1998. Recent immigrants: Unexpected implications for crime and incarceration. Industrial and Labor Relations Review 51.4:654–679.

    DOI: 10.2307/2525013 10.2307/2525013Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Butcher and Piehl examine whether the improvement in immigrants’ relative incarceration rates over the last three decades is linked to increased deportation, immigrant self-selection, or deterrence. Their evidence suggests that deportation does not drive the results.

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  • Butcher, Kristin F., and Anne M. Piehl. 2008. Crime, corrections, and California: What does immigration have to do with it? California Counts: Population Trends and Profiles 9.3.

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    The authors examine the effect of immigration on public safety in California. Finds that immigrants are underrepresented in California prisons compared to their representation in the overall population. Available online.

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  • Hickman, Laura J., and Marika J. Suttorp. 2008. Are deportable aliens a unique threat to public safety? Comparing the recidivism of deportable and nondeportable aliens. Criminology and Public Policy 7:59–82.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9133.2008.00491.x 10.1111/j.1745-9133.2008.00491.xSave Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Compares the recidivism of deportable and nondeportable aliens released from the Los Angeles County Jail. Results of analyses revealed no difference in the rearrest rate of deportable and nondeportable aliens in terms of its occurrence, frequency, or timing.

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  • Phillips, Scott, Nestor Rodrigez, and Jacqueline Hagan. 2002. Brutality at the border? Use of force in the arrest of immigrants in the United States. International Journal of the Sociology of Law 30:285–306.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0194-6595(03)00003-0 10.1016/S0194-6595(03)00003-0Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A rare look at how immigrants are treated. Phillips and colleagues interviewed Salvadoran deportees and their family members in El Salvador. Results indicate that immigrants are subject to more force when they are arrested than are native-born citizens. Thus, immigrants may be subject to force more often because of heightened exposure to common risk factors.

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  • Phillips, Scott, Jacqueline Maria Hagan, and Nestor Rodriguez. 2006. Brutal borders? Examining the treatment of deportees during arrest and detention. Social Forces 85:93–109.

    DOI: 10.1353/sof.2006.0137 10.1353/sof.2006.0137Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Drawing on interviews with a random sample of Salvadoran deportees, the authors examine treatment during arrest and detention. The findings indicate deportees are often subject to verbal harassment, procedural failings, and use of force. The force tends to be excessive, more common against deportees than citizens, and is influenced by situational contingencies and organizational actors, but not ecological settings.

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  • Rowland, Matthew G. 2002. Probation supervision of legal and illegal aliens: A study. Federal Sentencing Reporter 14:276–278.

    DOI: 10.1525/fsr.2002.14.5.276 10.1525/fsr.2002.14.5.276Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Immigrants in New York City face unique obstacles to reentering community including language barriers and employment limitations. Results indicate that the native born receive more rehabilitation efforts in the system than legal or illegal immigrants, but U.S. citizens have a higher failure rate in probation than immigrants.

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  • Rumbaut, Rubén G., and Walter A. Ewing. 2007. The myth of immigrant criminality and the paradox of assimilation: Incarceration rates among native and foreign-born men. Immigration Policy Center: Washington DC.

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    A summary report from the American Immigration Law Foundation examines data from the census and other sources. Reports that for every ethnic group, without exception, incarceration rates among young men are lowest for immigrants, even those who are the least educated. This holds true especially for the Mexicans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans who make up the bulk of the undocumented population. Available online.

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Immigration and Crime Policy

Policies to reduce the incidence of crime among immigrants and to enhance contact with the criminal justice system are discussed by Culver 2004, which calls for addressing language barriers. Davis and Henderson 2003 provides information on the willingness of immigrant communities to report crime to the police. Mears 2001 and Mears 2002 offer policy commendations to improve the connection between immigration and criminal-justice experience. Based on a series of articles about Chicago, Liberman 2007 provides policy interventions to reduce violence.

  • Culver, Leigh. 2004. The impact of new immigration patterns on the provision of police services in Midwestern communities. Journal of Criminal Justice 32:329–344.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2004.04.004 10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2004.04.004Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Findings reveal that the language barrier greatly affects the development of a police–Hispanic community relationship. Fear of the police, immigration issues, and the nature of contacts between the police and the Latino community also are important factors. Study focused on Midwestern communities. Conducted interviews with patrol officers and community leaders, concluding that language barriers can increase fear of police, and interventions need to address this issue.

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  • Davis, Robert C., and Nicole J. Henderson. 2003. Willingness to report crimes: The role of ethnic group membership and community efficacy. Crime and Delinquency 49:564–580.

    DOI: 10.1177/0011128703254418 10.1177/0011128703254418Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Law enforcement experts and observers of immigrant communities have suggested that the foreign-born are reluctant to report crimes to the police. This study examines willingness to report crimes among residents of six ethnic communities in New York City. Contrary to the pessimism expressed in the literature, the authors find that large majorities of respondents said that they would report break-ins, muggings, family violence, and drug selling.

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  • Liberman, Akiva. 2007. Adolescents, neighborhoods, and violence: Recent findings from the Project on Human Development in Chicago neighborhoods. National Institute of Justice: Research in Brief.

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    This report summarizes findings on violence from four recently published scientific articles using data from the Project on Human Development in Chicago. Each article used multilevel design, drawing on data from both the neighborhood and youth studies, as shown in the appendix. The body of research reviewed in the articles generally concludes that neighborhood conditions and social processes including immigration are important predictors of violence beyond the attributes of individual residents themselves. The findings suggest that neighborhoods are strong candidates for policy interventions to reduce violence. Available online.

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  • Mears, Daniel P. 2001. The immigration-crime nexus: Toward an analytic framework for assessing and guiding theory, research, and policy. Sociological Perspectives 44:1–19.

    DOI: 10.1525/sop.2001.44.1.1 10.1525/sop.2001.44.1.1Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    The author conducts a thorough review of the literature. Discusses the importance of the unit of analysis used, and the need to focus on community factors in research, to test theories, and to apply findings to policies. Includes some policy suggestions, such as building up informal social control and also identifying risk factors for crime-to-target interventions.

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  • Mears, Daniel P. 2002. Immigration and crime: What’s the connection? Federal Sentencing Reporter 14:284–288.

    DOI: 10.1525/fsr.2002.14.5.284 10.1525/fsr.2002.14.5.284Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Research on immigration and crime based on unreliable data sources, but overall findings suggest that immigrants commit less, not more, crime than the native born. Has policy suggestions.

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Violence Against Immigrant Women

Theory, research, and data resources on violence against immigrant females have appeared in the past decade. Erez 2002 and Erez, et al. 2003 highlight ongoing research needs on violence against immigrant women. A recent line of research focuses on the immigration/ethnicity/gender link in crime. An excellent example is Bui and Thongniramol 2005, an examination of criminal involvement and exposure among a national student sample. Data sets on this topic are stored in the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Data Resource Center or the Office on Violence against Women. Some of this information is printed in Renzetti 2001, which summarizes available information on violence against women including Latinas.

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