Immigration Has Little To Do With Crime, Wellesley Researcher Finds

For immediate release:
Feb. 26, 2008

Contact: Arlie Corday,, 781-283-3321
At PPIC: Andrew Hattori, 415-291-4417,

Kristin Butcher
Kristin F. Butcher, associate professor of economics at Wellesley College.

WELLESLEY, Mass. —Immigrants are far less likely than the average U.S. native to commit crime in California, according to researchers Kristin F. Butcher, associate professor of economics at Wellesley College, and Anne Morrison Piehl, associate professor of economics and faculty affiliate in criminal justice at Rutgers University. Their report was released this week by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), where Butcher and Piehl have held visiting fellow positions.

Significantly lower rates of incarceration and institutionalization among foreign-born adults suggest that longstanding fears of immigration as a threat to public safety are unjustified.

"Our research indicates that limiting immigration, requiring higher educational levels to obtain visas, or spending more money to increase penalties against criminal immigrants will have little impact on public safety," said Butcher. "In California, as in the rest of the nation, immigrants already have extremely low rates of criminal activity."

Butcher and Piehl’s report, “Crime, Corrections and California: What Does Immigration Have to Do with It?,” finds that:

• People born outside the United States make up about 35 percent of California’s adult population but represent only about 17 percent of the state prison population.

• U.S.-born adult men are incarcerated in state prisons at rates up to 3.3 times higher than foreign-born men.

• Among men ages 18-40 – the age group most likely to commit crime – those born in the United States are 10 times more likely than immigrants to be in county jail or state prison.

• Noncitizen men from Mexico ages 18-40 – a group disproportionately likely to have entered the United States illegally – are more than 8 times less likely than U.S.-born men in the same age group to be in a correctional setting (0.48% vs. 4.2%).

The findings are striking because immigrants in California are more likely than the U.S.-born to be young and male and to have low levels of education – all characteristics associated with higher rates of crime and incarceration. Yet the report shows that institutionalization rates of young male immigrants with less than a high school diploma are extremely low, particularly when compared with U.S.-born men with low levels of education.

The low rates of criminal involvement by immigrants may be due in part to current U.S. immigration policy, which screens immigrants for criminal history and assigns extra penalties to noncitizens who commit crimes. The PPIC report has important implications for several reforms to immigration policy now under consideration. Consistent with national studies, the report also found lowered property and violent crime rates in California cities with a higher share of recent immigrants than in those with a lower share.

PPIC is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social and political issues. To view the full report, click here and enter the following code: 208CCBP. The report also appears on PPIC's Web site (

Since 1875, Wellesley College has been a leader in providing an excellent liberal arts education for women who will make a difference in the world. Its 500-acre campus near Boston is home to 2,300 undergraduate students from all 50 states and 68 countries.