Is Fear of Immigrant Criminals Overblown?

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On November 2010, 18-year-old Joshua Wilkerson was beaten and killed by a classmate from his high school in Pearland, Texas. His body was found in a wooded area, partially burned and with his hands and feet bound.

His killer: Hermilo Moralez, an undocumented immigrant from Belize, brought to the U.S. by his parents as a child.

Start looking, and you'll find plenty of examples of crimes by immigrants in the country without legal status.

A Honduran immigrant who stabbed and killed a woman in a carjacking attempt. A Guatemalan man who intentionally set fire to a tenement building, killing five people. A Salvadoran woman who recruited a 15-year-old girl to become a prostitute. All in the country without authorization.

Stories like these are what led Maria Espinoza to start The Remembrance Project, a group dedicated to honoring Americans who have been killed by undocumented immigrants. She's in Washington, D.C., this week, showing her opposition to immigration reform and to the idea of undocumented immigrants could become citizens.

"Every crime committed by illegal aliens is 100 percent preventable if that person was not in the country," Espinoza said. [Politicians] are not doing their job and our families have had enough."

But it's important to balance personal stories -- however horrific -- with statistical reality.

"Obviously, dangerous criminals and terrorists must be punished, and immigrants who are dangerous criminals or terrorists should be locked up," wrote Walter Ewing, a senior researcher at the Immigration Policy Center, in a book devoted to the issue. "But harsh immigration policies are not effective in fighting crime or terrorism because the overwhelming majority of immigrants are neither criminals nor terrorists."

Ewing cites multiple reasons that the fear of undocumented criminals is overblown:

Crime rates

Illegal immigration surged in the last few decades. In 1990, there were an estimated 3.5 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. By 2010, there were 11.2 million.

But over a similar period, the violent crime rate fell by 40 percent, according to FBI data.

In addition, first-generation immigration appear to be less likely to commit violent crimes, according to a study by Robert Sampson, the chair of the sociology department at Harvard University. That's people here both with and without papers.

The study looked at violent acts committed by those ages 8-25 in Chicago between 1995 and 2003. First-generation immigrants were 45 percent less likely to commit violent acts compared to third-generation Americans.

Prison

Immigrants are also far less likely to be in prison than the native-born.

A 2007 study by sociologist Rubén G. Rumbaut looked at incarceration rates among men ages 18 to 39, who make up the bulk of the prison population.

Rumbaut found that 3.5 percent of native-born men were in prison in 2000, compared to 0.7 percent of immigrant men.

Immigration Crimes

Maria Espinoza said on Monday that part of the reason people should come to the U.S. legally is because it sets a better precedent for adhering to laws of all types.

"It sets the stage for following and respecting laws," she said. "Right now we are heading to lawlessness when our own government are ignoring our laws."

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