Immigrants, crime and DACA: A perspective

Dr. Connie Hassett-Walker, Kean criminal justice professor Credit: Facebook

Dr. Connie Hassett-Walker, Kean criminal justice professor Credit: Facebook

By Dr. Connie Hassett-Walker | Published Sept. 29, 2017

In a Feb. 2017 speech to Congress, President Trump announced a new office – Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) – that, according to its website, would be focused on helping “immigration crime victims”. The President was elected on what some felt was an anti-immigrant platform — characterizing immigrants from Mexico as drug dealers and rapists and building a wall along the U.S./Mexico border (which Mexico would pay for).

On Sept. 5, the president announced an end to a program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), that allowed undocumented young people (a.k.a. “Dreamers”) brought into the U.S. as children to remain in the country and not face deportation. The president also challenged Congress to take up the issue of immigration if they did not like his plan.

The prospect of DACA ending no doubt struck fear in many of the 700,000-plus people protected under the program. But then a few days later, it was reported that President Trump had begun working towards a deal with Democrats to protect the Dreamers after all.

The prospect of the president walking back his earlier assertions about ending DACA predictably led to sharp responses from the conservative outlet Breitbart (“Trump Caves on DACA, Wants ‘Quick’ Amnesty for 800K Illegal Aliens” ), and comedian Seth Meyers, who poked fun at the many twists and turns in Trump’s malleable approach to immigration. Shortly thereafter, Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton reported that the president had called him to say there would be no deal on DACA.

A main rationale for tightening up U.S. borders is to keep Americans safe from crime — particularly violent crime — committed by illegal immigrants. The underlying assumption is that undocumented individuals in the country commit more crime than legal residents.

Let’s unpack this idea. Research shows that there is, in fact, no clear relationship between immigration and crime, apart from, in the case of illegal immigration, the inherent nature of having entered the country illegally.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation ( FBI) annually publishes its “Crime in the United States” report, also referred to as the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR). The UCR presents the current and prior years’ index offenses, which include four violent crime types (murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault) and four property crime types (burglary, larceny/theft, motor vehicle theft, arson). These are presumably the sorts of crimes the president is referring to when he alludes to the threats posed by illegal immigrants.

Trump has claimed that the “murder rate in 2015 experienced its largest single-year increase in nearly half a century.” In fact, the FBI’s UCR data show that index offenses including violent crime have generally decreased since 1994. There has been a moderate increase since 2015 in some violent crimes, including murder, rape, and aggravated assault. But property crime since 2015 has fallen.

Violent crime in recent years hasn’t come anywhere close to the levels during 1989 to 1993, when violence skyrocketed. In 1992, violent crime nationally was 758 per 100,000 population, whereas in 2015 it was 373 per 100,000. Homicide peaked in 1993 at 9.5 murders per 100,000 population. In 2015, the rate was 4.9 murders per 100,000.

There will always be examples of immigrants, both legal and illegal, who commit an act of violence which someone can drudge up, point to, and announce, ‘Here!! See? See what I’m talking about?!?’ However, these are not the majority of individuals.

In fact, as some experts have pointed out, undocumented individuals may be less likely than native-born Americans to engage in crime and end up incarcerated. If they break the law, they risk arrest and deportation. Nor will deportations of the Dreamers and other undocumented individuals likely reduce felonies (serious crime) in America.

In studying the relationship between violent crime and deportation of immigrants, Dr. Jacob I Stowell, in his collaboration for Law and Society Review, “Addition by Subtraction? A Longitudinal Analysis of the Impact of Deportation on Violent Crime,” it was concluded that “if there is a relationship between these two social processes, it does not lend itself to simple characterizations.”

Probably nothing that would lend itself to a 140-character tweet. Less well-publicized outside the criminal justice community – but certainly well-known within it – is that illegal immigrants are often criminally victimized. Data on the extent of undocumented individuals being victimized are harder to come by, as victims do not always come forward to report incidents, fearing arrest and subsequent deportation.

Despite historically being a nation of immigrants, in practice, the U.S. has a long and complicated relationship with immigration, beginning in the early 1600s with the English pilgrims. Some (Dutch, Germans, Swedish, Quakers) came voluntarily, while others (Irish) arrived as indentured servants or slaves (Africans).

Immigration continued throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, with people both drawn to America by the promise of a better life, or fleeing poor conditions back home (famine, poverty, persecution). Willingness to welcome new arrivals has experienced ebbs and flows over the centuries, depending on various factors (e.g., the state of the economy).

Supposed threats posed by immigrants are not often well-represented by politicians trying to win elections, nor do media portrayals accurately reflect the realities — the humanity — of immigration in America.

In looking ahead to future immigration policy, it is best to consult with both history and facts. Of two facts we can feel confident: we are currently in a low-crime period as per FBI data (counter to declarations of the opposite), and undocumented individuals are not disproportionately involved in violent felonies. As such, mass deportations will not noticeably increase safety.

Dr. Connie Hassett-Walker is an Associate Professor in Kean’s Criminal Justice Department. She blogs about crime & justice and social issues at Follow her at

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