Why Do Immigrant Neighborhoods Have Low Crime Rates?

Originally published March 6, 2015

By Lisa Y. Garibay

UTEP News Service

In today’s oft-heated debate over immigration policy in the United States, many argue that arrivals from other countries have a negative impact on the country and even contribute to rising crime rates. At The University of Texas at El Paso, a team of researchers is working with new data to prove that, in fact, the opposite is true.

Over the past year, 50 UTEP student researchers worked alongside three professors to create a methodologically sound survey, determine a geographic canvassing strategy, and conduct face-to-face polls with more than 1,100 people living in neighborhoods throughout El Paso County.

Theodore Curry, Ph.D., associate professor of criminal justice, is leading the research. He talked about immigrant neighborhoods and their surprising relation to crime.

Curry pointed out that there are interesting theories addressing this issue, which has blindsided criminologists and other experts. One is that immigrant neighborhoods have lower crime rates because they are stronger communities of families that are more strongly connected to each other. In addition, immigrants tend to be working even though they may be poor, so they are invested in their community.

Curry’s grant has made it possible to acquire these facts using El Paso as a model locale.

After months of pounding pavement, knocking on doors and conducting hourlong interviews with each individual who agreed to take the survey, the team is now ready to prove a theory that could cause a ripple effect within policymaking, policing and public opinion.

The project, titled “Why are Immigrant Neighborhoods Low Crime Neighborhoods? Testing Immigrant Revitalization Theory and Cultural Explanations,” was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. Curry serves as the principal investigator (PI) with co-PIs Maria Cristina Morales, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology and anthropology; and Professor Emeritus of Psychology Harmon Hosch, Ph.D.

Hosch served as the project’s expert data analyst. He began discussing the project with Curry from the beginning of the proposal preparation stage back in 2011.

“There is a mistaken notion among some people and among some politicians and law enforcement individuals that immigrants and the fact of immigration is causally related to crime,” Hosch said. “The empirical data do not support this notion, but there is not a very good explanation for the fact that immigrants are less likely to be involved in crime than others. The data from this project will provide empirical evidence to allow us to tease out the factors that are important from those that are not.”

Given its proximity to the border and long history of migration between the two countries, El Paso was an ideal location for the study. Surveys were conducted with random samples of adults residing within a random sample of neighborhood clusters (boundaries of which were created using census tracts and markers such as highways and mountains). High-, medium- and low-immigrant neighborhoods were selected to allow for a good amount of variation.

Curry believes there are no other institutions out there collecting data like this, making UTEP’s study more significant.

“I know scholars who are already waiting to get their hands on this data to use for their own publications,” he said.

Hitting close to home at the University is the impact this research had on the academic, personal and professional lives of the students who were involved as researchers. Most of these students represent El Paso’s working-class Hispanic population and many are from immigrant families. The research study offered valuable participation for this underrepresented group in a realm that is often mysterious or closed-off to them.

“There is a big difference between learning about social science research and actually doing it,” Hosch said. “In this case, the research team involved the students in academic coursework on research methods and the students got practical experience conducting interviews. It was win-win. One hopes that the experiences they had will have sensitized them to the dynamics of their home community and the humility one needs to work with people from all walks of life.”

Students received course credit and research experience, while graduate students used the data for master’s-level theses.

Genesis Ruiz, a senior majoring in criminal justice, began participating as an interviewer in the spring of 2014 when she signed up for the course that was developed using this project as a model for research methods.

“When I first signed up for this course, it seemed so different and a bit crazy,” said Ruiz, who was born and raised in Mexico City, becoming a U.S. citizen just three years ago. “I had no idea what the results would be of me going to random homes asking for personal opinions on such a delicate subject such as immigration.”

Ruiz, who works with the El Paso Police Department’s Victim Services Response Team, has witnessed how a community with a long history of immigrants is much more willing to work with law enforcement than people might think.

“Police officers tell us all the time that the reason why El Paso is such a safe city is because of its citizens,” she said. “The community does choose to cooperate and work with law enforcement and that is what makes our city safe.”

Sociology master’s student Mario Chavez, who was born in Juárez, also served as graduate research supervisor and began with the project in Spring 2013. He was grateful for an opportunity that he says is not often available, especially as he seeks to polish his quantitative research skills as he goes on to pursue his Ph.D.

Chavez said he is often asked what it is like to live on a border that is considered a danger on one side and the safest in the U.S. on the other.

“I feel that after this project, I will be able to explain to these persons the factors that are most influencing safety in El Paso,” he said.

Watch Curry explain what will happen next.

Researchers will make a critical contribution by distributing their findings to law enforcement, government, nongovernmental organizations, media and politicians at the local, state and federal levels as well as scholarly outlets. While helping dispel myths surrounding immigrants, solutions also may be discovered that can then be applied to high-crime, nonimmigrant neighborhoods.

Jorge Luis Hernández served on the project as a graduate research assistant beginning in June 2013 and plans to apply the data to his master’s thesis. Hernández, whose parents were born in Mexico, will graduate in May with a master’s in sociology.

“Growing up in an immigrant community, I always detected a sense of togetherness where everybody had each other’s backs and would help each other any way they can,” he said. “This is why I am perplexed when I hear certain politicians malign immigrants’ integrity, labeling them as criminals who are up to no good. Based on my personal experience and the research I have conducted, these claims couldn’t be further from the truth.”