Harsh immigration policies may undermine public safety, study finds

May 2, 2012

Tough enforcement of immigration laws may limit illegal immigration—the intended consequence—but may also have the unintended effect of undermining public safety, by alienating immigrants and thus making them less likely to cooperate with police on quelling criminal activity in their communities.

In a study in the May 2012 Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science—co-led by Andrew Papachristos, Robert Wood Johnson Health & Society Scholar at Harvard School of Public Health’s Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies and associate professor of sociology at Yale University, and David Kirk of the University of Texas at Austin—the authors note that harsh legal sanctions against immigrants, often framed as a means to keep communities safe, may in fact have the opposite effect by decreasing cooperation with police.

“The basic logic of laws like Arizona SB 1070, which went before the Supreme Court April 25 and will be ruled on by June, is that deporting more illegal immigrants will make our communities safer,” said Papachristos. “But this ignores more than a century of research that demonstrates that immigrants are actually less likely to commit a crime than their native-born counterparts. What our study shows is that immigrant communities are actually more cooperative with the police. Laws like SB 1070 will do more harm than good since they are likely to erode people’s trust in the legal system and make them pause before helping the police.”

Using data from the 2000 U.S. Census, the World Bank’s World Governance Indicators project, and a 2002 survey of New York City residents, the authors found that immigrant communities are less cynical about the legal system and more likely to cooperate with police than communities of mostly native-born people.

However, the authors caution that increasingly harsh enforcement of immigration laws in the U.S. could undermine immigrants’ general supportiveness of police and the legal system. They note that, since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there’s been a sharp increase in annual deportations of illegal aliens; numbers jumped from 165,000 in 2002 to nearly 400,000 in 2009. And several states, in addition to Arizona, have proposed or enacted harsh new anti-immigration measures.

Such measures are an attempt to address many issues beyond crime, such as job competition and access to public services by non-citizens, Papachristos noted. “Yet when the conversation on immigration turns to the health and safety of our communities,” he said, “it is important to keep in mind that ‘getting tough’ on immigration just might make us less safe.”

–Karen Feldscher