Why are Immigrants' Incarceration Rates so Low? Evidence on Selective Immigration, Deterrence, and Deportation
The perception that immigration adversely affects crime rates led to legislation in the 1990s that particularly increased punishment of criminal aliens. In fact, immigrants have much lower institutionalization (incarceration) rates than the native born - on the order of one-fifth the rate of natives. More recently arrived immigrants have the lowest relative incarceration rates, and this difference increased from 1980 to 2000. We examine whether the improvement in immigrants' relative incarceration rates over the last three decades is linked to increased deportation, immigrant self-selection, or deterrence. Our evidence suggests that deportation does not drive the results. Rather, the process of migration selects individuals who either have lower criminal propensities or are more responsive to deterrent effects than the average native. Immigrants who were already in the country reduced their relative institutionalization probability over the decades; and the newly arrived immigrants in the 1980s and 1990s seem to be particularly unlikely to be involved in criminal activity, consistent with increasingly positive selection along this dimension.
We appreciate the excellent research assistance of Yonita Grigorova and Kyung Park. We thank David Card, Karen Humes, Jennifer Hunt, Francesca Mazzolari, J. Gregory Robinson, and participants in presentations at the CReAM conference on Immigration, Maryland Workshop on the Economics of Crime, Colby College, University of Connecticut, Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, Rutgers University, the Myron Weiner Seminar Series on International Migration, the NBER Summer Institute, and the annual meetings of the Society of Labor Economists, APPAM, and the American Law and Economics Association for helpful discussions. The views expressed herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Bureau of Economic Research.