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Do Illegal Immigrants Burden the Justice System?


This week we've been examining the numbers behind the debate over illegal immigration. And today the subject is immigration and crime.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on this question: whether undocumented workers take a disproportionate toll on the criminal justice system.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

Richard Ward directs the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University at Huntsville, Texas. He has concerns about illegal immigration.

Mr. RICHARD WARD (Dean, College of Criminal Justice, Houston State University): They do draw down upon resources. You know, our schools, our hospitals, our medical facilities. And there's no doubt that we need to do something about this.

SHAPIRO: But in his area of expertise, criminal behavior...

Mr. WARD: The number of those who would be most critical would say, Well, crime is a big factor. I just don't see it, other than it's illegal to cross the border.

SHAPIRO: Academics who study immigration and crime have almost all reached the same conclusion. Robert Sampson teaches sociology at Harvard.

Professor ROBERT SAMPSON (Department of Sociology, Harvard University): This idea that there's this immigrant flow that's disorderly, criminal, disrupted families, I'm just saying doesn't match up necessarily with the facts.

SHAPIRO: Sampson's research showed that first-generation immigrants are 45 percent less likely to commit crimes than third generation immigrants. Rutgers economics Professor Anne Piehl found a similar pattern when she looked at incarceration rates.

Professor ANNE PIEHL (Department of Economics, Rutgers University): Immigrants are extremely unlikely to be incarcerated relative to natives.

SHAPIRO: They're about one-fifth as likely to end up in prison. And what's more...

Prof. PIEHL: When we control for things like race and education, immigrants actually start to look even better, relative to natives.

SHAPIRO: At Florida International University in Miami, criminal justice professor Romero Martinez, Jr. has studied violent crime rates among Latinos. Like the other researchers, his conclusions contradict the image of immigrants as a criminal, violent bunch.

Professor ROMERO MARTINEZ, JR. (Florida International University): For the most part, places with heavy levels of immigrants, or a high percentage of immigrants, have traditionally had relatively low levels of crime.

SHAPIRO: Martinez says most immigrants have strong work ethics and family ties that don't leave them any time or incentive to be violent. These studies don't distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants. But Harvard Professor Sampson says...

Prof. SAMPSON: One can make the argument that illegals have greater incentive not to commit crime, because then it would bring increased visibility, deportation, arrests, and so forth.

SHAPIRO: For local officials, academic statistics are not what's important.

Mr. STEVE LEVY (Suffolk County Executive, Long Island): They can sit around a table in their ivory towers and talk about one person's propensity more than others to commit crime. But it doesn't affect our bottom line.

SHAPIRO: Steve Levy is Suffolk County executive on Long Island.

Mr. LEVY: What matters is who's in our jail and who we have to pay for, and the fact that we're not getting reimbursed for this from the federal government.

SHAPIRO: Levy says jailing illegal immigrants costs his county more than $10 million a year. In California, where Dennis Zine is an L.A. city councilman, the state pays roughly $750 million a year to keep illegal immigrants in jail. Zine was also a member of the L.A. Police Department.

Mr. DENNIS ZINE (Councilman, L.A. County): Ninety-five percent of the outstanding homicide warrants in Los Angeles: illegal aliens. Illegal immigrants account for two-thirds of the unserved felony warrants. Approximately 17,000 of those are felony warrants, which means very serious crimes.

SHAPIRO: None of these statistics include immigration violations. The immigrants who commit those offenses spend their time in federal prisons before being deported.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.