Crime, Immigration and the Modern City

The debate over crime and immigration in the United States (and elsewhere) divides itself along fairly predictable lines.  On the right hand, there are the often loud voices of people in think-tanks like the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) who point out that incarceration rates of immigrants are particularly high.  They cite data from the US Department of Homeland Security, law enforcement, and prison and jail systems to give the impression that immigrants are more criminal than the native born.  Such data do indeed often indicate that minority groups, some of whom are immigrant groups, are more likely to be found in lock-ups even while acknowledging that the data tend to be incomplete; they also somewhat reflect patterns of law enforcement as much as they do actual crime.

On the left hand are researchers who point out that immigrants themselves typically are more law-abiding than are the native-born.  They point to accumulations of data from both official sources and surveys in the US, Canada, and other countries indicating that immigrants often have lower crime rates than the native-born.  Indeed, sociologist Robert Sampson makes the provocative claim that immigrant influxes can in fact have a “calming” effect on neighborhoods — meaning that crime rates go down when new immigrants move in.  This finding, though, looks at only the “foreign born” immigrants themselves, and not necessarily at the children of migrants growing up in the poor urban areas in which they are born.


The Process of Migration: From Rural Farms to Modern Cities

I think that both types of studies belie an important point, which is that the crime typically found in immigrant communities doesn't emerge from the adult immigrants themselves, but from their children.  In fact crime in immigrant communities comes from the process of integrating immigrants from poor under-developed rural areas, into the modern urban ghettoes of the world’s fast growing cities. A strain emerges between their parents' remembered culture of rural third world farms, and that of the consumer-driven modern city. As these boys come of age, “waves” of youthful crime result from the process of migration, usually 15-25 years after their parents arrived.  This results in a paradox: an immigrant group first perceived by law enforcement as being docile and law-abiding, subsequently being blamed for unleashing aggressive young males into an unsuspecting population.  The cooperative "model minority" with low rates of criminality becomes stigmatized as a problem group, but only after large cohorts of boys raised in the new country enter the at-risk ages for crime.

This happens because the migration process isn't just a one-time event frozen in time.  Youthful crime in immigrant communities is in fact rooted in the dynamic age demographics of two issues: migration and crime.  As the immigrant group establishes itself in the new country it changes demographically, as the young adults who first migrated start to have children.  Most important, the immigrants themselves are older, typically in their early to late twenties, when they leave their home country.  They also “self-select” - that is, they decided to leave behind parents and siblings and sought work abroad - for ambition, discipline, and willingness to work in the cash economy. These are exactly the qualities likely to see them taking on low-paying work in a fast growing immigrant enclave. 

The paradoxical image of  angelic newcomers "calming" poor immigrant neighborhoods vs. crime-prone ethnic groups creating high crime rates emerges because both migration and crime are demographic phenomena.  One of the few constants in criminology is the observation that the population at-risk for crime is impulsive young males between the ages of about 16 and 23.  This finding has been replicated in many countries, and is virtually universal. It has implications for understanding just how immigrants can have a calming effect in immigrant communities while their children create havoc in the streets.


The Emergence of Street Gangs in Immigrant Communities

Immigrants are still unlike the native population to which law enforcement compares them, even in the second generation.  In particular, immigrants arriving from poor countries to labor in urban factories and farm fields attempt to recreate their home situations.  They rely on languages and values, from the rural societies they left, along with the work ethic, diligence, and discipline they self-selected for when first leaving.  Transmitting such values to their children sometimes works, but sometimes it doesn’t.  When it works, it results in paradigmatic immigrant over-achiever students who do very well in the colleges and universities of immigrant countries like the United States. 

But when the socialization of young boys by immigrant parents goes wrong, immigrant youth quickly become stigmatized for poor language skills, poor school performance, and as foreigners.  In such a context, boys in particular look to each other rather than to parents or school for approval.  Their immigrant parents, whose language skills may be weaker than those of their delinquent sons, are frustrated with their behavior, and they make harsh comparisons to more compliant and successful siblings and cousins.  This ostracizes the boys further, who create and look to deviant sub-cultures with other boys having trouble with the old home language, the new school language, and the discipline that parents and school attempt to impose.  In the end they are disliked and even feared by their own communities, and eventually attract the attention of the police.

The results are the street gangs of young boys found in many immigrant communities who, when entering the crime prone ages of 16-23, become the bane of law enforcement and parents alike.  The result is often the wave of "immigrant" crime that preoccupies critics from law enforcement, the Center for Immigrant Studies, and others concerned about the costs of immigration.  Also tragically, what were once model minorities become stigmatized due to what are often, indeed, high crime rates.  The solution of groups like CIS is to restrict the number of immigrants.  This might work, but only at the expense of not admitting immigrants and their children who do well and actually strengthen host societies.  Because after all, when choosing to admit an immigrant or not, you can't tell which of their future children will become a valedictorian, and who will join a crime-committing street gang.  Immigrant valedictorians and gang-bangers are flip sides of the same coin.


Blame the City

Ultimately, the problem of youthful crime in immigrant communities is a problem of modernity and the modern city. It is not a problem addressed well through policies of mass deportations or restrictions on immigration.  Youthful crime in immigrant communities is a product of the city, not the country-side which produced the immigrant parents who brought those initially calming effects to the new country.  If home culture was the problem, the cousins of today’s gang-bangers living “back on the farm” would be forming gangs too, but they aren't.  There are many social problems back on the farms of the third world’s subsistence farmers, but modern, tattooed-up street gang members strung out on methamphetamine aren't among them.

What's more, this isn't just a North American issue, either.  Youthful crime in immigrant communities can be found anywhere the poor are pulled in from a distant country-side to work cheaply in urban milieux.  No continent or culture is immune. Cities all over the world seek compliant immigrant labor, willing to work hard for low wages.  But modern cities get more than raw labor: they get human beings who want to settle into urban life and raise families there.  Such urban and family dynamics are the source of the immigrant crime issue.

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