All the heated talk about immigration makes it difficult to sort out fact from fiction. Many popular beliefs about immigration are not based on fact, but on myth and panic spread by individuals and groups with self-interested agendas. Yet effective immigration reform is possible only if it is based on accurate information, not on personal opinion, ideology, or fear.
Two important issues in the immigration debate are immigrants’ impact on the communities where they live and their assimilation to American society. In concrete terms: Do immigrants bring crime to America? Do they learn English? The answers to these questions may be surprising.
First, do immigrants bring crime? Polls show that about three out of four Americans believe that immigrants, especially those in the country illegally, increase the crime rate. President Bush has promoted this view, for example in a speech in May 2006, when he claimed ominously that “illegal immigrants live in the shadows of our society…Illegal immigration brings crime to our communities.”
Fortunately, we don’t have to guess about immigrants and crime. Crime rates are available in Department of Justice (DOJ) statistics that show the number of people incarcerated in local, state and federal prisons and jails.
The DOJ numbers are clear: Immigrants have a much lower rate of crime than native-born citizens.
This general trend holds for every subgroup in the population (divided by age, sex, level of education, and national origin).
For example, among males 18-39 (the most at-risk group), native-born citizens have five times the incarceration rate of foreign-born immigrants. Native-born white males have almost two times the incarceration rate of foreign-born Hispanic males, who make up the bulk of illegal immigrants.
Also, for every subgroup, the crime rate increases as they remain longer in the U.S. and become more Americanized, although even immigrants in the U.S. for more than 16 years still have a much lower incarceration rate than native-born citizens.
Of 38 million current residents born outside the United States, about 12 million are in the country illegally. Although recent years have shown an increase in illegal immigration, according to the FBI since 1994 the overall violent crime rate has decreased by about a third. A reasonable conclusion is that immigration has contributed to this drop in crime, and restricting immigration would lead to an increase in the overall crime rate.
The second question is: Do immigrants learn English? Polls show a majority of English-speaking citizens believe that immigrants — especially from Latin America — do not want to learn English.
Is this true? We now have the results of a major study of immigration in six counties in Southern California with very high rates of Spanish-speaking immigrants (Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, San Bernardino, Riverside and San Diego counties). This study involved interviews with 5,703 immigrants, many of them interviewed repeatedly over a period of 10 years.
Interviewing 5,703 people is extraordinary for social science research, and it means that the findings of the study are a highly reliable indicator of the overall immigrant population. (By comparison, nationwide presidential preference polls are typically based on fewer than 1,000 people.)
The study’s main conclusion: Immigrants are shifting to English at the same rate as European immigrants in the early 20th century.
During the third generation, every immigrant mother tongue reaches the point where it cannot survive into the next generation. In fact, by the second generation, most immigrants and their descendants express a preference for English in the home, although completely losing the ability to speak the mother tongue takes a bit longer. The trend is indisputable: Immigrant languages (including Spanish) are endangered.
These statistics about crime and language may surprise many Americans who believe that immigrants commit crimes and refuse to learn English. Yet criminologists and sociolinguists are not surprised. The crime rate among immigrants has been lower than among citizens since the 19th century, and sociolinguists agree that we are currently in a transitional period when immigrants are temporarily bilingual, in the process of losing their mother tongues and shifting to English only.
Because immigrants help to reduce crime and they quickly learn English, we should be skeptical of anyone who stirs up fear and hostility toward immigrants. If we look carefully at the facts of immigration, we find that middle-class Americans and immigrants have something in common: Increased economic insecurity brought about by an unforgiving form of global capitalism in which high-income groups benefit when working people are divided by mutual distrust and fear.
Rather than demonizing immigrants, middle-class Americans should form alliances with them. At a minimum, voters should insist that politicians and pundits who propose changes in immigration policy get their facts straight.
You can read about DOJ statistics on immigrants and crime on the Web at http://borderbattles.ssrc.org/Rumbault_Ewing/printable.html.
Jim Tollefson, a Langley resident and professor emeritus at the University of Washington, has written many articles and books about language, migration and government policy.