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A century of research says Donald Trump is wrong about immigrants and crime

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Billionaire Donald Trump recently claimed that Mexican immigrants are rapists and criminals. But a new report has found that the opposite is true: Immigrants — both legal and unauthorized — are actually less likely to commit crime than native-born Americans.

The report from the Immigration Policy Center, an advocacy group, draws from federal data and various empirical studies. The analysis isn't perfect, because it doesn't always differentiate between legal and unauthorized immigrants. But it should give Trump and others pause before they make eccentric claims that paint Latino Americans with a broad brush.

"While lawmakers repeatedly justify their crackdown on immigrants as a means of fighting crime, the reality is that crime in the United States is not caused or even aggravated by immigrants, regardless of their legal status," the report concludes. "This is hardly surprising since immigrants come to the United States to pursue economic and educational opportunities not available in their home countries and to build better lives for themselves and their families. As a result, they have little to gain and much to lose by breaking the law."

The report offers two major findings as evidence: Native-born Americans are more likely to be incarcerated than Central American immigrants, and recent increases in immigration occurred as crime actually fell in the US.

1) Native-born Americans are much more likely to be incarcerated than immigrants

Immigration Policy Center

The Immigration Policy Center found that immigrant men from Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala ages 18 to 39 and without a high school diploma — those who make up a bulk of the unauthorized immigrant population and would be most prone to commit crime — are incarcerated at much lower rates than native-born American men of the same age and education level. This suggests that immigrants — both unauthorized and legal — are committing much less crime.

The analysis found this has held up for decades. In 1980, 1990, 2000, and 2010, native-born Americans ages 18 to 39 were two to five times more likely to be in jail or prison than immigrants of the same age.

In a review of the research, the Immigration Policy Center cited multiple studies that found immigrants aren't more prone to commit crime. For example, a 2013 study found that "immigrants to the US are less likely to engage in violent or nonviolent antisocial behaviors than native-born Americans. Notably, native-born Americans were approximately four times more likely to report violent behavior than Asian and African immigrants and three times more likely than immigrants from Latin America."

Some conservatives point out that undocumented immigrants represent more than one-third of yearly federal sentences for criminal convictions. But the Immigration Policy Center demonstrated that the federal statistic misses the much larger state prison population, where immigrants make up a tiny fraction of inmates. The report stated, "while some may be [in federal prison] for committing a serious criminal offense, a great many more may be there because of an immigration violation. Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that the characteristics of the federal prison population do not necessarily speak to the US prison population as a whole because the overwhelming majority of prisoners are not in federal prisons. According to data from the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, federal inmates accounted for only 9 percent of all prisoners in 2010."

The group also pointed to federal commissions from a century ago that studied the effects of previous immigration waves on crime. The Dillingham Commission in 1911 concluded, "No satisfactory evidence has yet been produced to show that immigration has resulted in an increase in crime disproportionate to the increase in adult population. Such comparable statistics of crime and population as it has been possible to obtain indicate that immigrants are less prone to commit crime than are native Americans."

2) Since the 1990s, more unauthorized immigrants came to the US — and crime rates dropped

Immigration Policy Center

As the number of immigrants — unauthorized and otherwise — increased in the US, crime fell precipitously across the country. And major immigrant "gateways" — such as El Paso, San Antonio, San Diego, and Austin — have seen big crime drops along with the rest of the country, according to the Immigration Policy Center report.

Now, immigration isn't necessarily the cause of the US crime drop — criminologists point to many, many reasons for the decline, and some are still being studied and debated to this day.

But some criminologists believe immigration helped. John Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center, previously told me that upwardly mobile immigrants (and gentrifiers) help create more prosperous economic environments — because they don't push older residents out of inner-city neighborhoods, but instead create more integrated, economically healthier areas. These stronger economies then help drive down crime.

Roman pointed to research that shows economically and racially segregated areas tend to have a lot more problems with crime. He cited the differences in crime in New York City, which has seen a lot of gentrification in recent years, and Chicago, which remains one of the most economically and racially segregated major cities in the US. While New York City has seen homicides drop over the past few decades, Chicago's homicide rate has seen a smaller decline.

Roman acknowledged that it's difficult to study the direct effects of immigration and gentrification — making it hard to know how much, if any, of an impact immigrants may have.

But at the very least, the Immigration Policy Center's analysis shows that increases in immigration aren't leading to huge spikes in crime — suggesting that the warnings of Trump and others are misguided at best.