SOCIAL – November 2013

Perceptions on Immigration and Crime

Immigration has always been a part of America’s history. Recently immigration reform has become the center of heated political debates. There are some that suggest that immigration is a good thing for the Nation while others suggest that it’s not. Traub and Tayler (2009) suggested that in 2006 the population of undocumented immigrants stabilized at 11.9 million. It has been suggested that as of 2007, 12.6% of the entire US population is foreign-born. More than half of the immigrants in the US are from Latin America and the Caribbean. Approximately 1 in 6 immigrants have either entered the country illegally or have entered legally and stayed beyond their time (Palivos, 2009). Researchers, however, have questioned the legitimacy of the numbers recorded. Some, suggest that the exact number of undocumented immigrants is unknown simply because the numbers are based on those that were arrested and have failed to enter the US (Nadadur, 2009).

There has been talks that a large number, if not majority, of the crimes that occur in the US are commented by undocumented immigrants. This notion that undocumented immigrants commit more crimes often dominates the anti-immigration legislation. However, studies have suggested that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than natives (Butcher & Piehl, 2008). Wadsworth went on to suggest that on the contrary immigrants are partly responsible for one of the most noticeable declines in crime that the US has experienced (2010). Thus, it is imperative to conduct the proper research documenting the public perception on the issue. Most importantly for us, it’s the need to understand how future professionals in areas of public justice and overall human services perceive immigration issues.

During the past summer, Dr. Rivera-Vázquez and two undergraduate students, Renée Sterling and Tiffany Huynh, from the State University of NY at Oswego decided to take a closer look at this issue. The research team received grant funding to conduct research on the perception of immigration reform, undocumented immigrants, and crime. The sample consisted of 97 Pubic Justice students.

Most participants perceived that the U.S. immigration system is broken. When it comes to their perception about immigration and crime, a majority of the participants do not perceive immigrants to be more likely to commit a criminal act when compared to non-immigrants. However, there are still high percentages who believe otherwise. Over 30% of the participants agreed undocumented immigrants should be forced out the country. Results from this study also suggest that 17% of the sample perceived property crime have increased due to undocumented immigration. A large majority of the sample also agreed that undocumented immigrants use smugglers to enter into the U.S. There is documented evidence that many immigrants enter the U.S. legally and simply overstay, thus they do not necessarily use smugglers or cross the borders to come in the country.

Given these results, we need to look carefully at how we train criminal justice and/or human services professionals on issues related to sensitiveness to the immigration and crime debate. Our students often express their interest to enter fields such as: police, probation and parole, juvenile justice, ICE, FBI, counseling, social work, etc. Ultimately, these future professionals will pursue careers that will put them at increased contact with immigrant communities. Thus, having our students become aware of their own biases will only increase the quality of professionals we produce.

About the authors: Omara Rivera Vázquez, Ph.D. is Puerto Rican  and holds an Assistant Professor position within the Department of Public Justice at the State University of New York -Oswego.  She received her doctoral degree in Family and Child Ecology as well as a dual master’s degree in Criminal Justice-Urban Affairs from Michigan State University.

Renee Sterling is an undergraduate senior studying Psychology and Public Justice (minor) at the State University of New York at Oswego. Shehopes to pursue a career in social work.

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