By Charles Primm
Ben Feldmeyer, a fellow in UT’s Center for the Study of Social Justice (CSSJ) and an assistant professor of sociology, is using research to question some widely held assumptions about the impact of Latino immigration on violent crime rates in our nation’s communities.
"There’s a very strong belief among the American public that immigration contributes to crime," Feldmeyer said. "Until the last few years, there had not been much research to address that issue."
A Pew Hispanic Center study in 2006 showed that more than 70 percent of the American public believes that immigration contributes to crime, Feldmeyer said.
In his study, published recently in the Journal of Social Science Research, Feldmeyer looked at cities and surrounding communities in the states of California and New York, examining their rates of Latino immigration and violent crimes as well as measures of community stability such as the prevalence of two-parent versus one-parent homes. The Latino immigrants had come from throughout Central and South America, but mostly from Mexico, especially those who settled in California.
"My research question was to see if immigration was destabilizing these communities, making it harder to prevent crime, or if it was in fact strengthening communities and helping them prevent crimes," Feldmeyer said.
Feldmeyer examined the population data and crime statistics, controlling other large factors such as poverty rates and education levels. What he found was that immigration did have a slightly disruptive effect on communities in some ways, specifically when language barriers begin to grow between the immigrants and the existing community members. However, these effects were almost completely erased by the organizing and strengthening effects that immigration brings to communities through higher rates of two-parent households, greater attachment to the local labor force and measurable reductions in robbery, homicide and other violent crimes in neighborhoods and communities with increasing numbers of Latino residents.
"The conclusion I reached was that the prevailing public opinion regarding immigration and violence was not valid," Feldmeyer said. "This lines up pretty well with other studies that found that immigrants do not represent an overall net increase in crime, but a net decrease."
The implication of this research, he said, is that public policies which are based on reducing immigration in order to reduce violence are not reflective of what’s actually happening in society, and may end up being counterproductive.
Feldmeyer said that future research should investigate the process of how and why immigration is affecting crime.
"We need to ask what is it about immigrant populations, particularly Latino populations, that seem to be strengthening American communities," Feldmeyer said.
Feldmeyer, who also directs the CSSJ’s crime and justice division, says he also is working with the UT Knoxville campus chapter of Amnesty International to organize a discussion on inequalities in the criminal justice system. They hope to bring in scholars, activists, public defenders and judges who will share their thoughts on the current system and their ideas on how to improve it.
For more information on the center, visit their Web site at http://cssj.utk.edu.