Law-Abiding Immigrants: The Incarceration Gap Between Immigrants and the US-born, 1850–2020
We combine full-count Census data (1850–1940) with Census/ACS samples (1950–2020) to provide the first nationally representative long-run series (1850–2020) of incarceration rates for immigrants and the US-born. As a group, immigrants had higher incarceration rates than US-born white men before 1870, similar rates between 1880-1950, and lower rates since 1960. Although there are substantial differences in incarceration by origin country, the relative decline in incarceration since 1960 occurred among immigrants from all sending regions. This decline cannot be explained by changes in immigrants’ observable characteristics or immigration policy, but may reflect immigrants’ resilience to economic shocks.
We thank Jing Wu for sharing historical prison admissions data from Missouri. We have greatly benefited from comments from Alvaro Calderón, Jenna Kowalski, Giovanni Peri, Ernesto Tiburcio Manón, Carolyn Moehling, Melanie Morten, Aurelie Ouss, Jeremy Weinstein, and Gavin Wright, as well as participants at the NBER conference on Immigrants and the U.S. Economy, the Center for Economic History reception at Northwestern University, the All CA-Mexico Economics of migration seminar series, the SITE conference on migration at Stanford, the Royal Economics Society, the Bissell-Heyd Symposium at the University of Toronto, and the Seymour E. and Ruth B. Harris Lecture Series at Harvard University. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Bureau of Economic Research.