Study debunks link between immigrants, crime

02/26/2008 4:41 AM

02/26/2008 7:43 AM

Immigrants are less likely than U.S.-born citizens to be incarcerated in California, according to a Public Policy Institute of California study released Monday.

The study by the San Francisco-based independent, nonprofit think tank also found:

U.S.-born men are three times more likely to be incarcerated in state prison than foreign-born men.

Foreign-born people make up 35 percent of California's adult population and 17 percent of the state prison population.

U.S.-born men ages 18 to 40 are eight times more likely than Mexican men of the same age group to be in a state correctional institute.

The institute's numbers stand in stark contrast to federal prison statistics. Though immigrants made up about 12 percent of the U.S. population in 2005, they made up 27 percent of the population in federal prisons, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report.

Kristin Butcher, an associate professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts who co-wrote the study, had this statistic in mind when she began research for the institute's report. Because people who have been arrested and are awaiting deportation are transferred to federal detention centers from county jails and state prisons, immigrants make up a disproportionate percentage of the federal prison population. She reasoned that the inverse must be true for state and county facilities.

"Calls to curtail immigration, particularly illegal immigration, appeal to public fears about immigrants' involvement in criminal activities," the report states.

"Everyone here is not a criminal," Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department spokesman Deputy Royjindar Singh said of immigrants.

The report concludes that spending more money to reduce immigration won't necessarily make the United States safer, because immigrants commit crime less frequently than U.S.-born citizens.

That's no surprise to Modesto-based Hispanic Leadership Council President Balvino Irizarry.

"Immigrants are highly motivated. The first generation that comes has a strong incentive to work and take care of their families," he said, adding that immigrants' futures and families depend on them staying out of trouble.

Butcher concedes that immigrants' low rate of incarceration in state prisons may partly be a result of immigration policy that involves screening prospective immigrants for criminal history. Foreign-born U.S. residents must show "good moral conduct."

Even a misdemeanor can halt a citizenship application, said Sharon Rummery, northwest regional spokeswoman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration.

Butcher says while stringent immigration policies may help weed out unsavory people seeking U.S. residency or citizenship, she doubts policy proposals that call for even stronger limitations, such as increasing the education needed by those granted visas, will help reduce crime.

Bee staff writer Eve Hightower can be reached at ehightower@modbee.com or 578-2382.

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