Latino Experiences with Crime

Immigrant Status, Latino Neighborhoods, and Victimization

Nearly 19 million Latinos are foreign born, more than a third of the total. Among those immigrants, more than 13 million, about two-thirds of the Hispanic foreign born, are not U.S. citizens—indeed, most are unauthorized migrants. Latino immigrants, and particularly undocumented immigrants, face disincentives to reporting crime to the police, as discussed in the first part of this section, which can be exacerbated by law enforcement policies. At the same time, neighborhood-level studies show that Latino immigration can play a role in reducing crime rates, as detailed in the second part below.

While the relationship between immigration and Latino victimization is clearly an important topic by virtue of the number of individuals involved alone, the research literature is relatively sparse. There are also significant deficiencies in the available data. The National Crime Victimization Survey, conducted annually by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, is a critical source of information, and yet, remarkably, its lengthy questionnaire does not include a question about where the respondent was born.

Reasons for Not Reporting Crimes

Source: Pew Hispanic Center (2009)

Immigrant Status and Reporting to the Police

Immigrant status and police cooperation with immigration enforcement authorities play a significant role in determining whether Latinos report crime. While 78 percent of Latinos responding to a nationwide survey said they would definitely report a violent crime and 84 percent said they would report a property crime, those who wouldn’t cited fear of repercussions as a primary reason (42 percent of immigrants, 18 percent of those born in the United States; Pew Hispanic Center, 2009; see Figure 1). In a separate survey, 44 percent of Latinos said they would be hesitant to report being a victim of a crime for fear that the police would question their immigration status or the status of someone they knew (Theodore, 2013 [pdf]). Lastly, 13 percent of Latinos in a national survey said they had avoided reporting a crime to the police because they didn’t want to be asked about their citizenship status, and the share was larger among Spanish-dominant Latinos—19 percent—than English-dominant Latinos—10 percent (Sanchez, Pedraza, & Vargas, 2015).

There is also some evidence to support a link between local police cooperation with immigration officials and a drop in crime reporting. A study in Costa Mesa found that Latinos would be less likely to report robbery or vandalism they witnessed after local police began cooperating with federal immigration authorities (Vidales, Day, & Powe, 2009). And in Prince William County, outside of Washington, D.C., reported aggravated assaults decreased after police were required to check the immigration status of detainees they suspected were undocumented, although the researchers could not determine whether this was due to a drop in reporting or some other factor (Koper, Guterbock, Woods, Taylor, & Carter, 2013).

Immigrant and Latino Neighborhoods and Crime

Although Latinos are more vulnerable to some crimes than the population at large, Latino immigration has been linked with a reduction in crime. Latino and/or immigrant neighborhoods often experience less crime than would be expected given economic and social factors—a situation sometimes called the Latino or Immigrant Paradox (Burchfield & Silver, 2013; Harris & Feldmeyer, 2013).

Larger numbers of Latino immigrants in Los Angeles have led to neighborhoods with less violent crime, according to a recent study (MacDonald, Hipp, & Gill, 2013). Similarly, the combination of high concentrations of Latinos and low household turnover led to reductions in violence in Los Angeles neighborhoods in a model developed by researchers Boggess and Hipp (2010).

Immigration seems to have either a negative effect or no effect on homicide victimization of Latinos. A study of Latino homicides in three cities found that higher numbers of immigrants had no effect on homicide in San Diego and Miami and a negative effect—meaning more immigrants were associated with fewer homicides—in El Paso (Lee, Martinez, Jr., & Rosenfeld, 2001). A similar study of Latino neighborhoods in San Diego and San Antonio found a negative effect in San Diego and no effect in San Antonio (Martinez, Jr., Stowell, & Cancino, 2008). The negative relationship between higher immigration and killings of Latinos in San Diego was also confirmed in a separate study (Martinez, Jr., Stowell, & Lee, 2010).

This paradox is not universally upheld, however. More Latino immigrants have been associated with safer neighborhoods in traditional immigrant destinations—the places Latino immigrants have been moving to in larger numbers for decades—but with more violent crime in nontraditional, newer destinations (Harris & Feldmeyer, 2013; Shihadeh & Barranco, 2012). From 2007 to 2010, Latinos in metropolitan areas with newly growing Latino populations experienced violent crime at a rate of 26.2 per thousand people, compared with 20.5 overall (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2014b [pdf]). While the younger average age of these newly arrived Latino populations partially accounts for the higher victimization rates, for Latinos aged 18 to 24, the gap was even bigger: 57.0 in new destinations compared to 32.4 overall.

Some studies also have found no relationship between immigration and violence in Latino neighborhoods, at least for particular types of crime (Burchfield & Silver, 2013; Alaniz, Cartmill, & Parker, 1998). Moreover, there is evidence that Latino immigrants can be targeted for certain kinds of crime. For example, a recent study found that Latino day laborers in New Orleans were more likely to have their wages stolen than the general population (Fussell, 2011). In a small group of undocumented migrant workers in Memphis, 63 percent had been the victims of at least one crime in the previous six months, and 57 percent had been stolen from (Bucher, Manasse, & Tarasawa, 2010 [pdf]).

Where a negative relationship between crime and immigration has been found, researchers have speculated that immigrant communities create group efficacy that buffers the likelihood of victimization associated with greater economic and social disadvantage. A test of this theory using limited English proficiency as a measure of cultural cohesion found that higher concentrations of people with limited English were associated with a lower rate of homicide victimization of Latinos in traditional immigrant destinations, including counties in California (Shihadeh & Barranco, 2010). In newer immigrant destinations, though, the opposite was true: less English proficiency was associated with a higher rate of killings of Latinos.

Any immigration effect may be related to differences between the victimization of first- and second-generation immigrants: a study of Latino adolescents in Chicago found that those born outside of the United States were less likely to state that they had been victimized than second-generation youth (Miller, 2012; Gibson & Miller, 2010 [pdf]).


Full citations for the references in this section are available here. Photo courtesy of Seth Anderson.

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