October 15, 2013

Crime rises among second-generation immigrants as they assimilate

FT_13.10.07_Prevalence-of-CrimeWhy does the crime rate soar among second-generation immigrants compared with their foreign-born peers?  Until recently, most sociologists have explained this increase by noting that many second-generation immigrants feel caught between two conflicting worlds—the old world of their parents and the new world of their birth.

But recently researchers have posited an alternate theory:  Second-generation immigrants are just “catching up” with the rest of us, claims Bianca E. Bersani, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.

Call it the dark side of assimilation. These second-generation immigrants have become as susceptible to temptation and harmful influences as are other Americans according to Bersani.  The unhappy consequence is a similar likelihood of committing a crime, Bersani wrote in an article published online by the journal Crime & Delinquency.

Other studies have documented how second-generation immigrants have become more like the typical American, both in positive and negative ways. For example, a Pew Research Center analysis of Census data earlier this year found that median family income of second-generation immigrants is virtually identical to the national median and higher than their foreign-born counterparts.  Home ownership rates follow a similar trajectory.

In her study, Bersani analyzed crime data collected from first- and second-generation immigrants. She then compared those crime rates with the other native-born adults and found striking similarities between second-generation immigrants and native-born non-Hispanic whites.

She begins her analysis by noting this well-documented phenomenon:  The crime rate among first-generation immigrants—those who came to this country from somewhere else—is significantly lower than the overall crime rate and that of the second generation. It’s even lower for those in their teens and early 20s, the age range when criminal involvement peaks.

But just a generation later, the crime rate soars.  In fact, it is virtually identical to the rate among native-born Americans across the most crime-prone years.  As the accompanying chart taken from an earlier Bersani study shows, about a quarter of 16-year-old native-born and second-generation immigrants have committed a crime in the past year. In contrast, about 17% of the foreign-born 16-year olds have broken the law.

What explains the difference?

Some researchers say the generations face two different sets of experiences, with the second generation—those with at least one parent who was born abroad—caught in the middle. They argue the second generation is caught between conflicting family and social values and expectations, and one result of this old world/new world conflict is a greater propensity to commit crime.  For more details, see this 1992 study.

To explore the causes of crime among second-generation immigrants, Besani used data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, a household-based, representative sample of people living in the U.S. in 1997 who were born from 1980 through 1984. The initial sample includes 8,984 youth who have been interviewed on an annual basis beginning in 1997. The dataset she used contained data collected through 2005.

The survey questioned respondents on sensitive topics, including the number of times they had a purposely damaged or destroyed property, committed a theft, sold or helped to sell drugs, attacked someone with the intent of hurting them or got into a serious fight in the past year.

In addition to crime data, the survey included information on important risk factors that researchers say are closely correlated with criminal involvement. They included whether the respondent had been a victim of a crime as a youth, various measures of family attachment as well as performance and attachment to school, whether the respondent had delinquent peers, lived in a neighborhood with gangs, or whether any of the respondent’s peers were gang members.

Then Bersani compared second-generation immigrants with other native-born groups. She found that the results supported her theory that “their involvement in crime is the result of the same factors that explain involvement in crime among typical native-born youth.”

For example, having peers in a gang increased the probability that an individual had been arrested in the previous year by 23% for second-generation immigrants and 25% for native-born non-Hispanic whites, Bersani wrote in an email. Similarly, having delinquent peers increases the likelihood of criminal or delinquent behavior by 6% for both groups. (The pattern was more mixed between second-generation immigrants and native-born blacks and Hispanics.)

This similar offending “profile” is strong evidence, she argues, that the generation crime gap among immigrants is due to the second-generation behaving like their native-born peers and not only as a consequence of growing up in two colliding worlds.

“Second generation immigrants appear to be catching-up to and resemble the typical native-born (white) population, at least in regard to their offending profile,” she wrote. These findings “suggest that the children of immigrants seemingly fall prey to criminogenic influences in similar ways that native-born youth do.”

Category: Social Studies

Topics: Criminal Justice, Immigration Trends

  1. Photo of Rich Morin

    is Senior Editor at the Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project.

Leave a Comment


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  1. Anthony Platt8 months ago

    There’s a bait and switch being done here. The article insinuates and then basically claims that the native born are white, except they’re not. The native born are the native born, and the native born in the United States is not at all completely white. Given that blacks account for half the crime in the entire country, we can conclude tentatively that second-generation immigrants are more likely circa twice as likely as native born whites to commit crimes. Nice try with that little trick though. That was clever.

  2. Reggie Hobbs1 year ago

    I just had to comment on the issue of crimes by immigrants in the US. Whether it is first or second generation. Well, I know that the first generation immigrants have a tendency not to commit crimes due to the fact that most of them are illegally in the US. And that they will walk the straight line so that they don’t bring attention to themselves with the law and get deported or hinder what they came here for. Which is a better life for them and their family back home. Because many of the first generation immigrants are supporting their families back in their country and they absolutely don’t want to jeopardize that responsibility to provide for them.

    This is just a generalization. Not to put every immigrant in one category and state it as fact. And also as someone of color I know that when the second generation assimilates into American culture they do lose a sense of humility. And they begin to rebel against the “good ole boy” do what you’re told, don’t break the law and respecting others like their parents had to do to survive as immigrants in the US. And now the second generations view is that…”Hey, I don’t have to conform like my parents did…screw that the world can’t dictate to me like they did to my parents.” attitude.

    Once we lose our humility a lot of things in a society goes wrong. It fosters the you can’t do crap to me…I am a citizen now syndrome, or the look at me now attitude and over compensate for their humble beginnings.

    Look at my people…blacks. We went from being humble and respectful to having a rampant outlook with the “Look at me now syndrome”. It just breaks my heart. We have truly lost our humility. And again like the immigrants…”I don’t have to be a good ole black man like my father did back in the day, screw that. I can do whatever I want, when I want”.

    My intention wasn’t to negate any of the research that Pew Research observed. But to bring my experiences for whatever it was worth. Truly do love the work that you people do. It really gives a honest perspective on what is affecting our world today and why.

    Thanks and keep up the good work.


  3. Dean1 year ago

    Looking at the chart the most obvious thing is that first generation immigrants have a lower rate of crime than the overall population. Which should have been the title of this article as that is the most significant observation.
    But instead the Pew institute declares that 2nd generation immigrants are involved with rising crime rates – which implies immigrants break the law more often than average Americans. This is misleading because the rate is almost the same as native borns, that is it has normalized.
    And secondly what is a “2nd generation immigrant”?? By my definition 2nd generation immigrants ARE native born Americans.
    All this research shows is immigrants commit less crime than anyone else. Please fire your American researchers they are clearly making biased observations, and hire some more of us first generation immigrants. It seems we are superior!

    1. Adrian1 year ago

      Completely agree. Biased judgement should be regulated, especially when most research revolves around minorities. Get the facts straight for they are a precursor to US history while keeping in mind “native-born citizens” live in a surrounding that isn’t their original state. Why is this not implemented in employees, I have no idea.
      – Born in California, Resident of Utah

    2. Tom7 months ago

      Native-born citizens are those whose parents are US citizens. 2nd generation immigrant are naturalized citizens, but not native born. Their parents aren’t US citizens

  4. Tha Lazy Comic1 year ago

    Anchors away my friends, anchors away.

  5. Arnon Edelstein1 year ago

    I am an Israeli criminologist. Since Sellin’s study on immigration and crime in 1938
    all the researchs done in the western countries, show that among second generation immigrants, crime is more prevelance not only in relation to their parents, but also in relation to their peer groups who were born in the country.
    In Isreael we found the same results addressing Ethiopian anf former Russian juvenile delinquency

  6. Robert1 year ago

    Does Bersani account for the extremely widespread and blatantly racist and dishonest practice of law enforcement agencies across the board lumping Hispanic crime in with white crime in order to reduce perceived crimes rates among non-whites (a practice designed largely to sell multi-culturalism and open borders) ? If not then her statistics are meaningless. Meanwhile, according to the Prison Policy Initiative – incarceration rates per 100,000:

    Whites: 380
    Hispanics: 966
    Blacks: 2,207

    1. wrd1 year ago

      @Robert – great comments. This “study” seems filled with left wing bias. It’s not white gangs that are terrorizing LA, it’s hispanic gangs. 50% of homicides, rapes, and kidnappings are committed by hispanics in California yet they are 37% of the population. They are overrepresented in other categories of violent crime. The vast majority of crime in Chicago and NYC are committed by blacks and hispanics. Far from being on par with “native born non-Hispanic whites”, hispanics are following the same downward trajectory as blacks.

  7. Reality1 year ago

    Please, I will make it very simple for you guys here :

    First generation Hispanics compare their standard of living in the United States with what it was in Latin America, and count their blessings. Second generation Hispanics compare their standard of living with the standard of living of whites, and feel that they have been denied what they deserve.

  8. Pablo1 year ago

    Interesting article. As a second gen immigrant myself who has done academic research into crime and immigrant-specific obstacles to entrepreneurship, I am disappointed it ignores an alternative explanation: perhaps first gen immigrants report crimes at a lower rate because of cultural barriers or a fear of law enforcement (stemming from a fear of deportation of themselves or a loved one).