Immigration, Crime, and Local Policing

Novel opportunities exist to relieve historical tensions between immigrant communities and local law enforcement agencies

Research Summary

In the early twentieth century, experts equated increased immigration with increased crime and “societal disorganization” (1). The real relationship between immigration and crime is far more complicated and nuanced than those experts believed. Contemporary scholars agree that no direct causal link exists between increased immigration and increased crime in major U.S. cities (1;2;3;4;5). In fact, some research finds that an influx of immigrants can actually decrease crime in many communities. Large portions of the American public nevertheless maintain that immigrants inherently increase  crime, instability, and cause other problems (6). Scholars, by contrast, do not single out immigrants as inherently criminal, although they do find several complex connections between increased immigration and increased crime. Many factors influence the increased crime rates that can accompany immigration (7). Increased numbers of immigrants means there are increased numbers of vulnerable targets for crime. Those immigrants who do commit crimes have multiple reasons for doing so, such as poverty or as a path to social inclusion.

Public opinion blaming immigrants for crime complicates relationships between municipal police and immigrants. Negative public attitudes towards immigrants fed into political pressure for policy changes that pulled municipal police agencies into immigration law enforcement.  After 2001, federal government reorganization placed the Department of Homeland Security (USDHS) and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) at the center of the War on Terror. In response to fears that terrorists, drug dealers, and other dangerous criminals entered the country illegally, ICE and the USDHS led initiatives to “fix” the “immigration problem” (2;8). Increasingly, these federal agencies draw state and municipal policy into entwined wars on crime, drugs and terrorism, increasing tension between police and immigrants. In particular, the Secure Communities Act (2008-14) required municipal police agencies to detain immigrants caught breaking any laws without trial, blurring the lines between immigration and criminal law (2). Immigrant communities became more fearful and distrusting of municipal law enforcement as a result of these policies (1;2;4).

Mistrust and fear complicate police efforts to implement effective community policing practices, which otherwise dominate current U.S. policing methods (9;10). Language and cultural barriers in immigrant communities further weaken ties and complicate positive community policing practices (9).

Despite the numerous barriers to positive police-immigrant relations, municipal governments and their elected officials throughout the United States often work hard to achieve them. Scholars expect that municipal police agencies with active language and cultural training programs can develop stronger ties with the communities they police, but more research about their efficacy is needed (1;9;11;12). Some municipalities attempted to opt out of many federal laws concerning immigration, citing federalism and constitutional infringements, but researchers do not agree on the efficacy of these motions (2;4).

Intended Audience

  • Law enforcement officials
  • Community organizers
  • Community leaders
  • Elected officials
  • Advocates

Related Projects

Academic Debates

Scholars continue to debate the best practices for relieving immigrant-police tensions. Research points to multicultural and multilingual training as the best option, but many municipal police agencies do not implement such programs (1;9;11;12). Other debates revolve around the efficacy of avoiding or opting-out of federal immigration laws based on claims of unconstitutionality. Al-Khatib insists that local law enforcement agencies should, on an ethical and legal basis, refuse to participate in such laws (2). Tidwell argues the opposite and questions the wisdom in opting-out of federal immigration laws like Secure Communities (4). She argues that law enforcement officers develop legitimacy through the perception of their actions, and any regulation to these actions creates a “concealment” of the true nature of law enforcement (4).

Public Debates

Crime and Immigration StatsThe American public perceives a much more overt relationship between increased immigration and increased crime. The Gallup organization polled different American ethnic groups in 2007 and found a prevailing opinion that immigrants worsen the crime situation in the United States. Non-Hispanic white populations held especially critical views of immigrants coming to the United States, while Hispanic populations held the most compassionate views.



1. Davies, Garth, and Jeffrey Fagan. 2012. “Crime and Enforcement in Immigrant Neighborhoods: Evidence from New York City.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 641: 99. Accessed November 10. 2014.

2. Al-Khatib, Alia. 2014. “Putting a Hold on ICE: Why Law Enforcement Should Refuse to Honor Immigration Detainers.” American University Law Review 64, no. 1: 105-164. Accessed June 17, 2015. ProQuest Research Library.

3.  Barboza, Gia Elise. 2011. “Group consciousness, identity and perceptions of unfair police treatment among Mexican Americans.” Policing 35, no. 3 (July): 505-527. Accessed June 16, 2015.

4. Tidwell, Natashia. 2014. “Fragmenting the Community: Immigration Enforcement and the Unintended Consequences of Local Police Non-Cooperation Policies.” St. John’s Law Review 88, no. 1 (Spring): 105-142. Accessed June 16, 2015. ProQuest Research Library.

5. Ewing, Walter A., Daniel E. Martinez, and Rubén G. Rumbaut. 2015. “The Criminalization of Immigration in the United States.” American Immigration Council (July):1-28. Accessed July 29, 2015.

6. Gallup. 2007. “Immigration.” Immigration. Accessed July 17, 2015.

7. Alvarez-Rivera, Lorna L., Matt R. Nobles, and Kim M. Lersch. 2014. “Latino Immigrant Acculturation and Crime.” American Journal of Criminal Justice: AJCJ 39: 315-330. Accessed July 20, 2015.

8.  Hernández, César Cuauhtémoc García. 2013. “Creating Crimmigration.” Brigham Young University Law Review 2013, no.6: 1457-1515. Accessed June 16, 2015.

9. Saint-Fort, Pradine, Noelle Yasso, and Susan Shah. 2012. “Engaging Police in Immigrant Communities: Promising Practices from the Field.” VERA Institute of Justice (October): 1- 76. Accessed November 10, 2014.

10. Vidales, Guadalupe, Kristen M. Day, and Michael Powe. 2009. “Police and Immigration Enforcement: Impact on Latino(a) residents’ perceptions of police.” Policing 32 (4): 631-653. Accessed November 10. 2014.

11.  Baskir, Cecily E. 2009. “Fostering Cultural Competence in Justice System ‘Gatekeepers’.” Judicature 92 (5): 232-237. Accessed November 10. 2014. Web of Science.

12. Shah, Susan, Insha Rahman, and Anita Khashu. 2007. “Overcoming Language Barriers: Solutions for Law Enforcement.” VERA Institute of Justice (October): 1-76. Accessed November 10. 2014. _final.pdf.


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