Immigrants to the United States are considerably less likely than natives to commit crimes or to be incarcerated. As shown in figure 12a, recent immigrants are much less likely to be institutionalized (a proxy for incarceration that also includes those in health-care institutions like mental institutions, hospitals, and drug treatment centers) at every age.
Why do immigrants have fewer interactions with the criminal justice system? Immigrants are subject to various kinds of formal and informal screening. In other words, institutions and incentives often cause the United States to receive migrants who are advantaged relative to their origin-country counterparts (Abramitzky and Boustan 2017) and less disposed to commit crimes. At the time of Butcher and Piehl’s analysis, deportation was not a major factor; rather, self-selection of low-crime-propensity immigrants into the United States appears to have been the driver (Butcher and Piehl 2007).*
There is an important caveat to this account: recent immigrants have had less time to be arrested and imprisoned in the United States than have natives. In other words, there may be a somewhat smaller gap in their criminal activity versus natives, but the U.S. criminal justice system has had less time to detain and incarcerate them (Butcher and Piehl 2007). Figure 12b therefore looks more specifically at the criminal justice interactions of native-born and foreign-born adults over a narrower window of time. It shows that 30- to 36-year-old immigrants are less likely to have been recently arrested, incarcerated, charged, or convicted of a crime when compared to natives, confirming the broader pattern of figure 12a. Research examining quasi-random variation in Mexican immigration has also found no causal impact on U.S. crime rates (Chalfin 2014).
In addition to the broader question of how immigrants as a group affect crime and incarceration rates, it is important to understand how changes in the legal status of immigrants can affect criminal justice outcomes. Evidence suggests that providing legal resident status to unauthorized immigrants causes a reduction in crime (Baker 2015). This is associated with improvements in immigrants’ employment opportunities and a corresponding increase in the opportunity cost of crime. Conversely, restricting access to legal employment for unauthorized immigrants leads to an increased crime rate, particularly for offenses that help to generate income (Freedman, Owens, and Bohn 2018). In total, unauthorized immigration does not seem to have a significant effect on rates of violent crime (Green 2016; Light and Miller 2018).
* The intensity and form of detention and deportation actions has changed substantially over the past few years and requires further research.