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California Crime Drop Linked to Rise in Immigration: Report

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Newly naturalized citizens wave American flags after being sworn in as U.S. citizens during a naturalization ceremony on June 19, 2017, in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Updated Friday, 7:45 p.m.

A recent report by the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice finds a correlation between California's immigration-driven diversifying population and a drop in crime rates over the past 35 years.

Titled "Refuting Fear: Immigration, Youth, and California's Stunning Declines in Crime and Violence," the report comes amid national efforts pushed by President Trump to restrict immigration and crack down on those living in the U.S. without authorization -- largely based on arguments about crimes committed by undocumented immigrants and concerns over terrorist attacks.

"President Donald Trump is blaming people of color -- specifically immigrants from Muslim-majority countries and Mexico -- for causing increased crime, drug-related death, and 'American carnage,' " the report says. "However, California's crime trends in the all-minority population era have proven to be more positive than the nation overall. This is especially apparent in California's largest cities, many of which have established local policies, or must adhere to state policy, limiting cooperation with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)."

Policies limiting local law enforcement assistance to federal immigration authorities are commonly known as "sanctuary" policies, although no uniform legal definition exists. "Sanctuary cities," which include San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland and hundreds more across the U.S., have been targeted by the president through an executive order blocked by a federal court and by Republican legislation in Congress.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed two bills on Thursday related to "sanctuary" cities: One would revoke some federal grants to those cities, detain more people who are awaiting deportation hearings and allow crime victims to sue cities that refuse to detain people for immigration authorities. Another called "Kate's Law," named for Kate Steinle, who was fatally shot in San Francisco in 2015 allegedly by an undocumented immigrant who had been deported several times, would increase criminal sentences for people caught re-entering the U.S. after a previous removal.

"There are a lot of parallel trends that suggest that immigration has an extremely positive impact on California," said Mike Males, the report's author. "It’s just the opposite of what the debate in the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday would make you think is going on."


The report notes that 28 percent of California youth (under 25) are white, compared to 60 percent in 1980. Today, more than 60 percent of California residents are people of color. Crime rates across the U.S. have steadily declined since the mid-1990s, when California's homicide rate was well above the national average. But in both general crime rates and violent crime, the Golden State has seen larger reductions than the rest of the country.

"If you don't believe the fact that there are 11,000 undocumented felons serving in California prisons, then you are a crime denier," state Sen. Joel Anderson, R-San Diego, said in a statement responding to the report. Anderson is a leading opponent of Senate Bill 54, known as the "sanctuary state" bill currently in the Assembly. "SB 54 continues to shield convicted felons serving time in our prisons from ICE, and I believe every one of them should be deported."

A graph in the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice report shows California's demographic changes and crime rates since 1980.
A graph in the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice report shows demographic changes among California's youth and violent crime rates since 1980.

Researcher Mike Males said estimating crime rates for solely undocumented immigrants is difficult because those arrested, convicted and incarcerated are not tracked by citizenship status on the state level. But there are indications that undocumented immigrants are not unusually prone to crime, he said. In fact, it's the opposite.

"If undocumented immigrants were committing a scourge of crime in California, we would expect the crime rate of Latinos to go through the roof, they’d be sky high, and they’re not," he said. "I would expect them to be going up and they’re not. They’re going down."

The report found the crime rate reductions are "concentrated in the groups most impacted by immigration," including areas with higher proportions of immigrants and groups more likely to include higher rates of recent immigrants, like Latino and Asian populations.

"[I]mmigration may be contributing, in part, to reduced risk," the report says. "While causal factors remain multifarious and unstudied, there appears to be a complex interaction in which younger and more diverse age groups are less involved with crime, violence, and drugs than the state's older residents."

It continues: "This correlation contradicts claims that increasing immigration will negatively impact society, that 'sanctuary cities' such as those in California 'breed crime,' or that California is 'out of control,' " quoting the president.


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