Public Discourse about Immigration as a Social Problem: Implications from Empirical Studies of Violent Crime and the Emerging ’Immigration Revitalization Perspective‘
For over a decade, much of my research has focused on the relationship between immigration, other structural conditions, and violent crime. I began looking at this contentious issue during graduate school when I became involved in a funded research project directed by my dissertation advisor, Ramiro Martinez, Jr. Since then, we have coauthored a number of empirical articles that have challenged popular stereotypes and existing sociological theories regarding immigration and crime, particularly the social disorganization perspective. Our research has contested the conventional wisdom that immigration increases levels of violent crime in neighborhoods in which immigrants settle. Our analyses (statistical, qualitative, spatial, and longitudinal) generally find that this is not the case. These findings cast doubt on the taken-for-granted idea that immigration disrupts communities, weakens social control, and increases crime. Rather, recent arrivals appear to play a positive role in their communities. Our work suggests that conventional theories of crime (and popular stereotypes) should be re-examined in light of the potentially revitalizing impact of immigration, a view that we have termed the Immigration Revitalization Perspective (Lee and Martinez 2002).
This is a timely topic. Although immigrants and immigration have a long history of serving as scapegoats for a variety of American social problems, conservative politicians and public commentators have pursued this strategy with renewed vigor in recent years.This posturing is understandable given the near collapse of our economy and ongoing turmoil in labor markets, the increasing threat of environmental destruction associated with unsustainable ways of life, and related issues. Defenders of the dominant hierarchically organized institutions in our society are desperate to deflect attention from systemic problems that cause real harm and focus public discourse instead on less politically powerful groups of people.
The controversial and well-known legislation passed in Arizona in 2010 (SB 1070) is one unfortunate example of claims making that has transformed immigration in the contemporary era into a social problem. In an issue of the newsletter of the American Society of Criminology, Martinez (2010:16) stated, ―What should be surprising to most criminologists is that architects of a divisive new Arizona law argue that preventing ̳illegal alien‘ crime is a justification for passing SB 1070 or the so-called Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act.‖ Grounding laws on the (faulty) notion that immigration causes crime is only ―surprising to criminologists today because of the relatively recent scholarly consensus associated with the immigration revitalization perspective. This perspective emerged only in the last decade (for an early example, see Martinez and Lee 2000). Prior to that, many criminologists might have assumed that immigration should be associated with social disorganization and therefore higher crime.
Ramiro and I, along with a growing number of scholars who have extended our work, highlight the importance of using theoretically informed original data, disaggregated by race/ethnicity, place, crime type (motive), and time period (cf. Nielsen, Martinez, and Lee 2005). Not every study pursues all of these strategies. But the research that has been produced is informative. As a way to take stock of the research that has appeared in the decade since we began presenting our revisionist analysis, we co-authored a chapter titled, ―Immigration Reduces Crime: An Emerging Scholarly Consensus.‖ We concluded that, ―an honest examination of the data will lead us to the conclusion that immigration is not a major cause of crime in the United States and that we can learn a great deal by understanding the many ways in which immigration prevents crime‖ (Lee and Martinez 2009:15). This conclusion has been supported by spatial analyses (cf. Lee, Martinez, and Stowell, 2008) as well as longitudinal research (cf. Martinez, Stowell, and Lee 2010) in a variety of settings. We also learned that beyond reducing crime, scholars have demonstrated that immigration is associated with a variety of positive results, including economic revitalization and better-than-expected health outcomes.
What is needed? Despite the growing number of empirical studies on immigration and crime, more scholarship is clearly needed to combat the stereotypes and misinformation that often dominate public debate (see Stowell 2007 for an example of a thoughtful and constructive study). Scholars must use their voices toVolume 42 Issue 2 encourage others to contribute to the emerging literature on immigration and crime. But we must also join thepublic debate and get involved in political action at the local and national level. For example, when the city council of a suburb—comprised almost exclusively of native-born whites—near my university proposed a resolution (Wadsworth resolution no. 10-10) in August 2010 to offer symbolic support of Arizona‘s draconian and counter-productive SB 1070, I was able to draw on my research to argue against the resolution. Another local immigration expert (Joanna Dreby) and I drafted an open letter opposing the legislation, which was co-signed by scholars from several local universities and sent to the Wadsworth city council. The resolution was ultimately defeated.
It is impossible to know what role, if any, our letter played in that vote. But the larger point is that even a decade ago it would have been difficult to advance an argument grounded in current empirical data to counter the notion that immigration causes crime. We have made important progress, but we need to do more if we hope to keep public discourse focused on the social problems that matter.
Lee, Matthew T. and Ramiro Martinez, Jr. 2010. "Immigration Reduces Crime: An Emerging Scholarly Consensus." Pp. 3-16 in William F. McDonald, ed., Immigration, Crime and Justice. Bingley, UK: Emerald.
Lee, Matthew T. and Ramiro Martinez, Jr. 2002. "Social Disorganization Revisited: Mapping the Recent Immigration and Black Homicide Relationship in Northern Miami." Sociological Focus 35:363-380.
Martinez, Ramiro, Jr. 2010. "Crime and Immigration." The Criminologist: The Official Newsletter of the American Society of Criminology 35/4:16-17.
Martinez, Ramiro, Jr. and Lee, Matthew T. 2000. "On Immigration and Crime." Pp. 485-524 in Gary LaFree, ed., Criminal Justice 2000: The Changing Nature of Crime. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice.
Nielsen, Amie L., Matthew T. Lee, and Ramiro Martinez, Jr. 2005. "Integrating Race, Place, and Motive in Social Disorganization Theory: Lessons from a Comparison of Black and Latino Homicide Types in Two Immigrant Destination Cities." Criminology 48:837-872.
Stowell, Jacob. I. 2007. Immigration and Crime: The Effects of Immigration on Criminal Behavior. New York: LFB Scholarly Publishing.
Matthew T. Lee, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor and Interim Chair of Sociology at the University of Akron. Dr. Lee‘s research has focused on immigration and crime, as well as organizational deviance. His most recent scholarship addresses the relationship between benevolence and religious experience.
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