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Opinion: Face facts: Immigrants commit fewer crimes than U.S.-born peers

Esther J. Cepeda

CHICAGO—There's an old saw in journalism that when a dog bites a man, it's just another thing that happened. But when a man bites a dog, well, that's news.

"Criminal illegal immigrants" are a modern-day version of that adage.

A large segment of America refuses to accept that legal immigrants, naturalized citizens and other lawfully present people from other countries—76 percent of all immigrants in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center—simply work or go to school and lead totally ordinary lives. These immigrants contribute to the economy, fund the Social Security program, etc., etc., etc., and otherwise just mind their own business.

The fact of the matter is that a significant portion of our society just wants to believe the worst about immigrants.

It's but a mere detail that only about a quarter of all the immigrants in the U.S. are living here without the proper authorization (and represent only 3.4 percent of the total U.S. population). After all, even one would be too many in some minds.

It's been well documented in studies going back nearly a century that the foreign-born are involved in crime at significantly lower rates than their U.S.-born peers.

New research recently published in the United Kingdom-based journal Migration Letters delved into arrest and re-arrest data of first-time juvenile male offenders between the ages of 13 and 17 (peak years for young people to get into trouble) in Pennsylvania, Louisiana and southern California.

The researchers looked at the boys in the categories of legal immigrants, unauthorized immigrants and U.S. born offenders. Just as in past studies, this one found that immigrants as a whole commit less crime than native-born Americans.

When broken out by legal status, the pattern still stands: Compared to their documented immigrant and U.S.-born peers, undocumented immigrants continue to report low levels of offending in the three years following first arrest.

"Undocumented immigrants reported lower offending both before they entered the study and then in the following three years after their first arrest," said Alex Piquero, one of the authors of the paper and a criminologist at the University of Texas at Dallas.

I'll stop here to interject the voices of the many people who shout at my column and then all-caps at me in angry emails and messages: "But what about the 'violent illegals'?" they'll ask. "What about the MS-13 gang? The 'illegal' who killed Kate Steinle in San Francisco? Or the drunk driving 'illegal' who killed the Indianapolis Colts' Edwin Jackson?"

These are absolutely tragic instances, surely somehow preventable and all-around terrible losses for the victims' families and communities, full stop.

However, these are also examples of man-bites-dog stories that give the impression that unauthorized immigrants present an outsize threat to the communities they inhabit.

Let me repeat: They do not.

We are all at risk from drunken drivers, people who accidentally misfire guns, those who are actively looking to harm others and thousands of other threats. But we are not at a higher risk of being hurt by immigrants simply because they are immigrants—whether they're residing in the U.S. illegally or not.

"I would venture to say that there are likely to be many more native-born Americans engaging in those acts than are undocumented immigrants," Piquero told me. "What we are seeing, though, are similar findings—including a recent study at the macro-level showing that undocumented immigration does not increase violence—showing up in various studies around the United States, using various samples, cities, and methodologies. It is coalescing on what we in the social sciences call a fact: Immigrants are not engaging in the levels of crime that some people believe that they are."

"In my view, all kinds of crime, but especially violent crime, are horrible regardless of who commits them, and we should be doing all we can to prevent those acts from occurring," Piquero said. "[But] focusing on immigration status means that we are potentially placing emphasis on the wrong factor and, in doing so, using scarce public safety resources ineffectively."

Of course, this is the argument for prioritizing immigration enforcement on repeat offenders and highly dangerous suspects, and leaving the infirm, veterans of our military, children and their moms and dads alone.

Frankly, people like a good man-bites-dog story because it's novel. Immigrants who by and large serve society and just try to carve out a life for themselves are suffering from being unremarkable—probably because they've been around since the founding of our nation.

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