Do Immigrants Threaten US Public Safety?

March 1, 2019

Project Summary

Opponents of immigration often claim that immigrants, particularly those who are unauthorized, are more likely than US natives to commit crimes and that they pose a threat to public safety. There is little evidence to support these claims. This research examines the existing literature on crime rates among legal and illegal immigrants as well as the effects of public policy programs to legalize illegal immigrants. Research overwhelmingly indicates that immigrants are less likely than similar US natives to commit violent and property crimes and that areas with more immigrants have similar or lower rates of violent and property crimes than areas with fewer immigrants.

There are relatively few studies specifically of criminal behavior among unauthorized immigrants, but the limited research suggests that these immigrants also have a lower propensity to commit crimes than their native-born peers, although possibly a higher propensity than legal immigrants.

Evidence about legalization programs is consistent with these findings, indicating that a legalization program reduces crime rates. A large-scale legalization program, which is not currently under serious consideration, has more potential to improve public safety and security than several other policies that have recently been proposed or implemented. Increased border enforcement, for example, though it reduces unauthorized immigrant inflows, has mixed effects on crime rates.

A crucial fact in contrast with the ramped up immigration enforcement over the last two decades is that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than similar US natives. This is not to say that immigrants never commit crimes. But the evidence is clear that they are not more likely to do so than US natives. In the face of such evidence, policies aimed at reducing the number of immigrants, including unauthorized immigrants, seem unlikely to reduce crime and increase public safety.

Project Authors