CU professor finds controversial link between reduced crime and rise in immigration.
Tim Wadsworth remembers the moment vividly, as if it happened a few hours ago instead of on a March day in 2006.
Scrolling through The New York Times on his computer, the assistant professor of sociology came upon an op-ed by Harvard professor Robert Sampson, a leading sociologist, who proposed an intriguing if extreme hypothesis: the drop in crime rates in the 1990s could be related to the rise in immigration.
The gears instantly started rotating in Wadsworth’s head.
“It was one of those moments where you feel like a kid in a candy store,’’ says the CU-Boulder assistant sociology professor, 41, who was teaching at the University of New Mexico at the time.
“My first response was, ‘Why has nobody tested this before?’ I thought I’d better get on it before somebody else did. I thought naively at the time this would be a pretty quick and clear-cut project.’’
That was a major miscalculation. Not until June 2010 did Social Science Quarterly publish his findings, which showed that during the 1990s the incidence of serious crime dropped in major cities in the U.S. — but fastest in the cities with the largest increase in immigration.
The timing was crucial because in late April Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed the nation’s toughest bill on illegal immigration into law, which intends to identify, prosecute and deport illegal immigrants. The bill triggered immediate protests and reignited the divisive battle over immigration reform nationally. It also pulled Wadsworth into the thick of the debate.
From his office in Ketchum Arts and Sciences, he fielded calls from both local and national reporters. He came under hostile attack in the blogosphere, and politicians on the right attacked his findings.
“It was certainly a new experience [in my career] in terms of media attention,’’ Wadsworth says. “When people are trying to draw on information to respond to current events, they want what’s sort of the newest. I just had the good fortune of bad timing.’’
Murder rates decline
The presumed link between crime and immigration is ingrained in American culture, so Wadsworth wasn’t sure what to expect when he started his research. In 1994 the murder rate began to decline and has been decreasing ever since. Sociologists credited innovative policing policies, tougher sentencing, an aging population and the end of the crack epidemic. The authors of Freakonomics (Harper Perennial) attribute the big drop to Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in 1973, which they say reduced by millions the pool of unwanted children who might have grown up to be criminals a generation later.
To test Sampson’s controversial hypothesis, Wadsworth turned to FBI and census data from 459 cities with more than 50,000 inhabitants, focusing on statistics for homicides and robberies — the two most accurately reported crimes. He measured the growth of the immigrant community over the 1990s in the selected cities, the scene of 80 percent of the country’s worst crimes.
Contrary to popular perception, Wadsworth found that the growth in the new immigrant population was responsible, on average, for 9.3 percent of the decline in homicide rates, and that growth in total immigration led, on average, to a 22.2 percent decrease in robbery rates. He controlled for other variables in the study, such as changes in employment, poverty, divorce, age distribution and other factors that often influence crime patterns.
Perhaps one explanation stems from what Wadsworth calls the “self-selection” factor.
“They [the immigrants] might be the ones chosen [to go to the U.S.] by families and communities as the most likely to succeed in a new community, the ones most likely to get jobs and send money home and support other family members coming to the U.S,’’ he says.
Wadsworth says immigrants have strong incentives not to step out of line in ways that might lead to incarceration or deportation.
“And many are migrating into communities with other immigrants,” he says. “They could be extended families or people from the same village. It tends to create a sense of solidarity in the community that we know tends to reduce criminal behavior,’’ he says.
Just one piece of the pie
Another possible reason is that many immigrants come from conservative rural areas in their home countries.
“They come from villages where crime is virtually nonexistent,’’ Wadsworth says. “If you haven’t committed a crime by the time you’re 20, 21, there’s a pretty good chance you’re never going to.”
Still Wadsworth says the findings hardly represent a “big bang theory.”
“This is just one piece of the pie,” he says. “This certainly isn’t necessarily a huge piece. (But) everyone is really finding the same thing. There is no support for the argument that immigrants are committing more crime and that immigrants are driving up the crime rate.’’
Some critics accuse Wadsworth of approaching the study with a liberal bias, intent on finding a way to support Sampson’s hypothesis, an accusation Wadsworth shrugs off.
In fact, he says finding a serious flaw in Sampson’s reasoning would have been a significant finding in its own right.
“Sampson is probably one of the most well-known criminologists and sociologists out there to be able to say, ‘Well, this is an interesting idea, but the data do not support it’ — that would have been interesting as well,” he says. “And if there was no relationship, in many ways that still questions public perceptions.
“If you’re being honest with your data you try to think, ‘Well, what am I leaving out? Is there something else that could be included in this model that would help explain or get rid of this finding?’ ”
But Wadsworth says the more he tried to do that, the more persistent the findings became, and the clearer it was that this was a significant and robust relationship.
Other critics dismiss Wadsworth’s findings out of hand, including former Colorado congressman Tom Tancredo, who is known for his anti-immigration views.
“Any report, any kind of investigation of this particular issue and study of it is like trying to shovel smoke,’’ Tancredo told Denver’s 7News. “The statistics are incredibly varied and skewed.’’
Wadsworth notes a couple of critics have rejected the research because he didn’t distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants. The professor thinks it’s a valid concern. However, he notes communities that have the highest number of documented immigrants also are the ones with the highest levels of undocumented ones.
“I couldn’t separate the two because the census doesn’t separate the two,” Wadsworth says.
The San Diego effect
Wadsworth’s findings aren’t likely to cool the passions on either side of the issue, even though they back up other findings. For example, Ramiro Martinez, a sociologist at Florida International University, has come to similar conclusions by studying homicide rates among Latino and immigrant communities in Miami, El Paso, San Diego, Chicago and other cities.
“San Diego, for example, is a place that captures the public imagination with all this concern about closing the borders of Mexico,” he wrote in 2006. “[But] it has one of the lowest homicide rates for any major urban area in the United States.’’
But the link between immigration and crime is largely taken for granted among the media and policymakers. Polls continue to show that the vast majority of Americans think immigrants cause crime.
And the dry facts of an FBI report are no match for the emotional impact of a sensational crime story, as Arizonans discovered in March following the murder of a popular rancher by a suspected illegal.
“Any homicide is horrendous and tragic,’’ Wadsworth says, “but in our country we have somewhere around 12,000 homicides a year. So to point to one and sort of make that the focal point of a debate about immigration is, I think, really putting up a smoke screen that eliminates a broader examination of trends and patterns.
“If you turn to Channel 4 and they start talking about FBI statistics, most people would change the channel. But if [newscasters] talk about a gruesome homicide or fugitive murderers and they put up pictures of scary people, that’s when they’re going to get people watching. And that’s what tends to sway public opinion.’’
Wadsworth grew up in Boston where his father was headmaster at a prep school. He discovered a passion for sociology as an undergraduate at University of California, Santa Cruz.
“It sort of knocked my socks off,’’ he says. “It offered a new way of understanding the world. I got very enthused about viewing the world through a sociological lens. It just made a lot of sense to me.’’
During graduate study at the University of Washington, he concentrated on economics and crime. While still actively studying crime patterns, his newest side project — a study of happiness — is a dramatic departure from his other work.
“What is it about the communities that people live in and the peer groups they spend time with that make people happy, that makes people content with their lives?” he asks.
This is the study his family members actually thought was going to end up hitting the media. And then the immigration study took off.
“Who knows where it will lead?”