The random shooting by an undocumented immigrant along San Francisco's Embarcadero has prompted a national firestorm, with everyone from Fox News to Hillary Clinton chiming in about the country’s immigration policies, pointing fingers at all those who set the accused killer on the streets.
But 100 years of research show that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes or be behind bars than native-born Americans, and high rates of immigration are not associated with higher rates of crime, according to the American Immigration Council in Washington, D.C. “This holds true for both legal immigrants and the undocumented, regardless of their country of origin or level of education,” the center said, citing statistics compiled from 1990 to 2013.
The report, “The Criminalization of Immigration in the United States,” was coincidentally released on Wednesday, a week after Kate Steinle was killed on Pier 14 in what San Francisco police said was a random shooting. On Tuesday, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez pleaded not guilty to her murder. Sanchez had been deported five times from the United States and was a seven-time convicted felon, mostly for low-level drug offenses.
Sanchez was not the topic of the report. But his his murder charge, the study's authors point out, falls outside the normal range of immigrant activity. And the purpose of the report, its authors wrote, is to show legislators the hard data as immigration policies are written and revisited.
Conservaties like to point out that prisons are indeed burgeoning with immigrants. But this population is more likely to be in federal prison, according to the Pew Research Center, for crimes related to illegally re-entering the United States. Also, Pew Research did find that crime rates do rise among second-generation immigrants as they assimilate. Sanchez is not second generation - he is either 45 or 52 years old, and came directly from Mexico.
The council's report shows that the immigrant population in the United States is rising, but the criminal activity is going down. Since 1990 to 2013, the foreign-born share of the U.S. population grew from 7.9 percent to 13.1 percent the number of unauthorized immigrants tripled from 3.5 million to 11.2 million, the center reported citing data compiled from the U.S. Census and the Pew Hispanic Center. During the same period, the FBI data shows that violent crime has declined by 48 percent and the property crime rate has fallen by 41 percent.
In California, the numbers are dropping as well, even as the immigrant population has tripled over the last two decades. Last week, the state Department of Justice reported that the total number of homicides in California last year — 1,691 — had dropped to its lowest level since 1971. Overall, the number of violent crimes in California was the lowest since 1976, and the state's violent crime rate was third lowest in the DOJ's report, behind only the years 1966 and 1967.
These numbers haven’t stopped conservatives, along with the San Francisco Police Officers Association, U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Diane Feinstein, and even Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, however, from weighing in and lobbing criticism at San Francisco’s “sanctuary city” status, which gives refuge to undocumented immigrants.
In an interview with CNN, Clinton said: “The city made a mistake, not to deport someone that the federal government strongly felt should be deported. So I have absolutely no support for a city that ignores the strong evidence that should be acted on."
While Sanchez's story is now sparking rhetoric from all sides, his particular situation does not hold true for the majority of other immigrants in the United States, according to the report's authors.
Immigrants are held “scapegoats” and are thought to be “more likely to commit predatory crimes,” said one of the report’s authors, UC Irvine sociology professor Ruben Rumbaut. “But that widespread belief is simply wrong.”