Crime is a global phenomenon. From the most highly developed states to the least developed ones, crime represents a significant threat to social well-being. And because of its ubiquity, unsavoriness, and harmful qualities, criminal activity has the distinction of being a social event that is often blamed on the individuals who live on the fringes of a society. For immigrants, this tendency to place the blame of crime on the less well-off members of a society is particularly dangerous since they often find themselves occupying some of the lowest rungs on a nation’s social ladder. Unsurprisingly, the consequences of criminal allegations against immigrants are likely to be severe; such allegations are also likely to reinforce the strong and enduring belief found in many countries that immigrants bring with them high criminal propensities (Citrin and Sides 2008; Ousey and Kubrin 2009).

Yet, in reality, the relationship between immigration and crime is far more complex than may initially be assumed. Consider Lynch and Simon’s (1999) argument that the supposed immigrant-crime connection may have much more to do with immigrants’ places of destination than with the immigrants themselves. In countries like the U.S. and Canada, for instance, first- and second-generation immigrants have been found to have lower crime rates than their native-born peers (Hagan, Levi, and Dinovitzer 2008). Sampson (2010) argues that this may be because countries such as the U.S tend to select non-criminal immigrants and/or because many immigrants come from cultures that are not particularly criminally-inclined. Dinovitzer, Hagan, and Levi (2009) further contend that immigrants’ general commitment to education, family, and conformity may protect them from engaging in delinquency. As Sutherland ([1924]1974) postulated many years ago, it is often only with time (and through the processes of acculturation and assimilation) that immigrant groups begin to more closely resemble their non-immigrant counterparts in regards to things like criminal involvement.

Still, not all immigrants have been found to be less criminally involved than their non-immigrants peers. Sweden (Martens 1997) and Switzerland (Killias 1997) are two countries in which first-generation immigrants have been found to be more crime-prone than the native-born population. In an attempt to explain the high crime rates of first-generation immigrants in Sweden, Martens points out that it could be that this country tends to attract immigrants who already have relatively high criminal propensities. But, by benefiting from Sweden’s generous state welfare policies, the crime rates of second-generation immigrants have been found to be lower than their parents’ generation and to be more inline with the crime rates of non-immigrants. As for Switzerland, Killias suggests that emerging cultural factors, poor social integration, and lower than normal socioeconomic statuses for immigrants may partially explain why both first- and second-generation immigrants have higher-than-average crime rates. If Martens and Killias are correct, then this adds credence to the thought that successful acculturation and assimilation may bring the crime rates of immigrants and their descendants more on par with the crime rates of non-immigrants. If, however, acculturation and assimilation are stalled or incomplete as may be the case in Switzerland, then immigrants may become increasing dissimilar from their non-immigrant counterparts and potentially more criminalistic.

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So, what does this all mean? Based on findings from countries like the U.S. and Canada, it appears that being an immigrant or the child of an immigrant may act as a shield against criminal involvement. That is, despite the common perception that immigrants engage in more crime than their native-born counterparts, it is generally only through the processes of acculturation and assimilation that immigrants in these countries begin to reach the heightened criminal propensity of their non-immigrant peers. In states like Sweden and Switzerland, however, the external circumstances seem to promote high rates of crime involvement in earlier generations. And, only after undergoing successful acculturation and assimilation do the descendants of immigrants become more similar to the native-born population when it comes to criminal activity. Based on both sets of divergent examples, this suggests that Lynch and Simon (1999) may have merit with their postulation that the immigrant-crime nexus may be more reflective of immigrants’ places of destination than with the individuals themselves. In other words, it may be that the receiving country plays a very influential role in the criminal involvement of its immigrants. Still, does this seem like a valid argument to you? What do you think?

Further Reading:

Citrin, Jack and John Sides. 2008. “Immigration and the Imagined Community in Europe and the United States.” Political Studies 56(1): 33-56.

Dinovitzer, Ronit, John Hagan, and Ron Levi. 2009. “Immigration and Youthful Illegalities in a Global Edge City.” Social Forces 88(1): 337-372.

Hagan, John, Ron Levi, and Ronit Dinovitzer. 2008. “The Symbolic Violence of the Crime-Immigration Nexus: Migrant Mythologies in the Americas.” Criminology and Public Policy 7(1): 95-112.

Killias, Martin. 1997. “Immigrants, Crime, and Criminal Justice in Switzerland.” Crime and Justice 21:375-405.

Lynch, James P. and Rita J. Simon. 1999. “A Comparative Assessment of Criminal Involvement Among Immigrants and Natives Across Seven Nations.” International Criminal Justice Review 9(1): 17.

Martens, Peter L. 1997. “Immigrants, Crime, and Criminal Justice in Sweden.” Crime and Justice 21:183-255.

Ousey, Graham C. and Charis E. Kubirn. 2009. “Exploring the Connections between Immigration and Violent Crime Rates in U.S. Cities, 1980-2000.” Social Problems 56(3): 447-473.

Sampson, Robert J. 2010. “Rethinking Crime and Immigration.” Contexts 7(1): 28-33.

Sutherland, Edwin H. [1924]1997. Criminology. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott.