Indie-Script: June 2007: Archives

June 30, 2007

Do Immigrants Reduce Crime Rates In Urban Areas? genre: Indie-Script & Six Degrees of Speculation

Crime Tape

Murder rates are on the rise in a number of urban areas in the Northeast and one possible explanation being offered is that those metropolitan areas with the lowest immigrant population are more unstable. Murder rates in cities with higher immigrant populations seem to have remained relatively stable in recent years. While immigrant population is offered as one explanation, officials point to other factors in a growing problem with murder rates in the Northeast.

PHILADELPHIA - Baltimore, Philadelphia and other cities in a bloodstained corridor along the East Coast are seeing a surge in killings, and one of the most provocative explanations offered by criminal-justice experts is this: not enough new immigrants.

The theory holds that waves of hardworking, ambitious immigrants reinvigorate desperately poor black and Hispanic neighborhoods and help keep crime down.

It is a theory that runs counter to the widely held notion that immigrants are a source of crime and disorder.

“New York, Los Angeles, they’re seeing massive immigration — the transformation, really, of their cities from populations around the world," said Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson. “These are people selecting to go into a country to get ahead, so they’re likely to be working hard and stay out of trouble."

I think the argument has merit though it is always risky to generalize. Regardless, it isn't difficult to imagine that the fear of deportation or being apprehended by a justice system that one doesn't understand would offer some level of deterrence. Additionally, my own anecdotal experience suggests that many immigrants spend long hours working and they frequently have more than one job. That alone limits the time one might have to get into trouble. Lastly, it may also be safe to assume that immigrants view living in the U.S. as an opportunity and the means to a better life...and happy people are generally peaceful people.

In interviews with The Associated Press, homicide detectives, criminal justice experts and community activists point to a confluence of other possible factors.

Among them: a failure to adopt some of the innovative practices that have reduced violence in bigger cities; the availability of powerful guns; and a shift in emphasis toward preventing terrorism instead of ordinary street crime.

Others blame a resigned acceptance of “quality-of-life" crimes, such as running red lights and vandalism. Some law enforcement authorities argue that ignoring such crimes breeds disrespect and cynicism and leads to more serious offenses.

The last paragraph makes a lot of sense to me. When people are desensitized such that they view others as little more than annoyances or obstacles...rather than as fellow human beings with feelings, emotions, and families...it becomes easier to disregard human life. Anyone who has driven in traffic should understand the phenomenon whereby we think the worst of anyone who happens to cut us off or drive erratically...until we witness someone we know doing so and then realize that real people are in those vehicles and they don't always have bad intentions.

University of Pennsylvania criminologist Lawrence W. Sherman is a prime exponent of the theory that immigration exerts a moderating effect on crime among poor black men.

“Cities that have heavily concentrated and segregated African-American poverty are the places that have increases in homicide," Sherman said. “The places that have lots of immigration tend not to have nearly as much segregation and isolation" of poor blacks.

Sherman acknowledges the theory is evolving and unproven.

He said immigrants “change the spirit" of a community and affect the way young black men in poor areas relate to each other.

The percentage of foreign-born residents is 11 percent in Philadelphia, compared with 22 percent in Chicago, 37 percent in New York and 40 percent in Los Angeles, according to 2005 census figures.

Alison Sprague, executive director of Victim/Witness Services of South Philadelphia, suggested there is some merit to the theory. Immigrants in Philadelphia tend to be crime victims rather than perpetrators, she said.

“I really do think the vast majority of people are trying to earn a living and support their families and stay under the radar," Sprague said. Illegal immigrants, especially, “have every motivation not to get involved in something."

“The second-tier cities have fewer economic possibilities for people," said Arlene Bell, a former prosecutor who now runs youth centers in Philadelphia. “When there are no opportunities for kids growing up, no possibility of entering the work force — particularly with their level of education — they’re left to their own devices."

No doubt economic opportunity is a factor...and it may also explain why immigrants choose the locales they do. Cities with better economic conditions are apt to have more immigrants and cities suffering high unemployment are apt to have higher crime.

The fact that immigrants choose cities with more jobs and better economic conditions does suggest that their intentions and ambitions make them less inclined to criminal activities. In other words, they enter the U.S. believing they will have an opportunity to pursue their hopes and dreams.

Cities with high crime rates and blighted areas are likely inhabited by people who feel trapped by their economic status...people who are living generational poverty and have come to view their opportunities with little hope...making them more susceptible and inclined to crime. They simply have a much more negative perspective of their situation than their immigrant counterparts. Despite the fact that immigrants may also come from generational poverty and have experienced similar economic struggles, they have, by virtue of their efforts to enter the United States, demonstrated a more hopeful perspective and a compelling desire to improve their station in life.

I think that perspective may have a significant impact on how one behaves. No doubt hopeful people are more mindful of the pitfalls of crime and therefore make choices to avoid such behavior. People who feel hopeless simply begin to believe they have nothing to lose and are unable to see beyond the moment which makes them prone to bad behaviors.

Daniel DiRito | June 30, 2007 | 10:07 AM | link
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