Previously by Ron Unz: If You Can't Trust Chalabi-the-Thief, Whom Can You Trust?

      According to Lou Dobbs, “a third of the prison population in this country is estimated to be illegal aliens,” and Glenn Beck regularly warns of “an illegal alien crime wave.” Congressman Tom Tancredo insists, “The face of illegal immigration on our borders is one of murder, one of drug smuggling, one of vandalism for all the communities along the border, and one of infiltration of people coming into this country for purposes to do us great harm.” Michelle Malkin adds an even more terrifying note, calling our borders “open channels not only for illegal aliens and drug smugglers, but terrorists, too.” Even as far back as 2000, the highly regarded General Social Survey found that 73 percent of Americans believed that immigration caused higher crime rates, a level of concern considerably greater than fears about job losses or social unity.

As Latino gangs have gained notoriety in the United States – particularly MS-13, dubbed the “The World’s Most Dangerous Gang” by usually restrained National Geographic – images of violent foreigners have come to dominate much of the national debate on immigration policy. A perception has taken root in the minds of the American public and many elected leaders that the greatest threat posed by mass immigration is crime.

In recent decades, most immigrants have been Hispanic; Asians, who constitute the other large portion of the inflow, are generally regarded as economically successful and law-abiding. Although many Hispanics are American-born, the vast majority still comes from a relatively recent immigrant background. So to a considerable extent, popular concerns about immigrant crime and popular concerns about Hispanic crime amount to the same thing. While fears of perceived racial insensitivity may force many critics to choose their words carefully, widespread belief that Hispanics have high or perhaps very high crime rates seems to exist.

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But is this correct? Or are these concerns rooted in the same excitable and ideological mindset that produced endless stories of Saddam’s notorious WMD, with activists and their media accomplices passing along rumors and personal beliefs in pursuit of a political agenda rather than bothering to determine the facts? Does America face a Hispanic crime problem or merely a Hispanic crime hoax?

Personal experiences are no substitute for detailed investigation, but they sometimes provide a useful reality check. Since the early 1990s, I’ve lived in Silicon Valley, a region in which people of white European ancestry are a relatively small minority, separately outnumbered by both Asians and Hispanics, with many of the latter quite poor and often here illegally. On any given day, more than half of the people I encounter in Palo Alto are Hispanics from immigrant backgrounds. Yet my area of the country has exceptionally low crime rates and virtually no serious ethnic conflict. This confounds the expectations of many of my East Coast friends.

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Prior to moving back to my native California, I lived for five years in Jackson Heights, Queens, one of the most heavily immigrant and ethnically diverse parts of New York City. There as well, white Europeans were a small minority and immigrants from various Latin American countries were the largest ethnic group, close to an absolute majority of the local population. On a typical afternoon or evening, probably 80 percent of the people walking the streets of my neighborhood were non-white, and on dozens of occasions I returned home from Manhattan on a late-night train, the only white face in the subway car. Yet in all my years of living there, I never encountered a hostile or menacing situation, let alone suffered an actual criminal attack. Hardly what one would expect from television images, let alone the wild claims made by conservative magazines or talk radio. The “thousands of brutal assailants and terrorists” City Journal’s Heather Mac Donald finds among our immigrant population must have moved into someone else’s neighborhood.

So were my personal experiences atypical? Or are the media and conservative movement portrayals so completely wrong? Hispanics will constitute a quarter of the American population within a generation or two according to current demographic projections, so this is an important issue for the future of our country.

The obvious way to answer the question is to consult the public FBI Uniform Crime Report database, which provides aggregated information on the race of all criminal suspects throughout America. Unfortunately, there’s a problem: Hispanic criminals are sometimes reported as “white” and sometimes not, rendering the federal crime data almost useless. Therefore, indirect means must be used to estimate the crime rate of Hispanics compared to whites. (Throughout this essay, “white” shall refer to non-Hispanic whites.)

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One metric to examine might be relative incarceration rates, since most people who begin a life of criminal activity end up behind bars sooner or later – usually sooner. Furthermore, since so much of prison violence is along racial lines, correctional authorities are careful to record the ethnicity of individual inmates, and the aggregate data is made available annually by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Indeed, over the years, prison-reform groups such as The Sentencing Project, as well as various federal judges, have used this official data to criticize the prison system for its massive overrepresentation of racial minorities among inmates relative to their share of the population.

If we examine the data in the most recent 2008 BJS report, published in December 2009, we discover the total Hispanic incarceration rate, while far below that of blacks, is still almost 150 percent above the white average, having fallen a little from the 170 percent figure in 2000. So perhaps those fearful commentators are right and Hispanics commit crimes at roughly two-and-a-half times the rate of whites in America.

The traditional liberal explanation for this would be that Hispanics are considerably poorer than whites, that poverty and racism cause crime, and that a white-dominated criminal justice system is likely to be biased against suspects of a darker hue. There may or may not be some truth in these common liberal arguments, but since the name of this magazine is The American Conservative, let us put them aside at least for now and consider other possible factors.

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The most obvious of these are age and gender. An overwhelming fraction of serious crime is committed by the young, young males in particular. This has been the case throughout recorded history and remains true everywhere in today’s world. Almost all American crimes are committed by individuals aged 15–44, with the age range 18–29 representing the sharp peak of criminal activity. Also, the 14-to-1 ratio of males to females in the U.S. prison system provides a sense of just how heavily crime is a male phenomenon; for violent offenses, the ratio is even higher.

And as it happens, the age distribution in America for Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites is quite different. The median age for Hispanics is around 27, near the absolute peak of the prime-crime age range. But the median white age is over 40, putting nearly half the white population above the likely age range for committing crimes. While it is certainly true that Hispanic 23-year-olds have much greater criminal tendencies than white 45-year-olds, a more useful question is the relative criminality of Hispanics and whites of the same age. Also, many Hispanics are immigrants, and since immigrants are more likely to be male, there will be a gender skew in the general Hispanic population. Therefore, let us consider the Hispanic imprisonment rate relative to the number of males in the high-crime age range.

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Suddenly the numbers change quite a bit, with the relative Hispanic-to-white total incarceration rate dropping by a third or more for several of the age cohorts. But even these lower figures may still be a bit misleading. As a recent front page New York Times story pointed out, over half of all federal prosecutions these days are for immigration-related offenses, and since a huge fraction of illegal immigrants are from south of the border, the 10 percent or so of U.S. prison inmates who are in federal custody might significantly distort our ethnic imprisonment statistics. Anyway, offenses such as robbery, rape, murder, burglary, assault, and theft are almost always prosecuted in state courts, so it makes sense to separate these street crimes from cases of illegal nannies convicted of illegal nannying.

Another important reason to focus on state-level imprisonment data is the evidence of vast differences among regional criminal-justice systems due to various cultural and political factors. For example, whites in Oklahoma are incarcerated at a rate almost 300 percent higher than whites in New Jersey, and while some of this disparity may result from the greater criminal tendencies of white Oklahomans, it seems likely that the harshness of the local courts and sentencing guidelines may also play an important role. We should therefore try to compare Hispanic incarceration rates with those for whites on a state-by-state basis so as to minimize the impact of differences in local criminal-justice systems.

The most recent BJS publications do not provide state-by-state incarceration data broken down by ethnicity, but the 2005 BJS Bulletin did exactly that, and while relative Hispanic incarceration rates have fallen somewhat in the past five years, the drop has not been large. Therefore, we should be able to use the 2005 figures with confidence.

Our first discovery is that even before adjusting for age, the overall Hispanic incarceration rate drops from 150 percent above the white rate down to just 80 percent above, presumably reflecting the exclusion of immigration-related federal offenses. We can now use census data to estimate the number of prime-crime-age young males in the two groups, and since there is some uncertainty in deciding which age range is most appropriate for normalization purposes, we should probably explore the results with several different choices, such as 18-29, 15-34, and 15–44.5 (Many observers believe that the number of Hispanic illegal immigrants in America is sharply underestimated by the government; if so, this would correspondingly reduce the relative Hispanic imprisonment rate.)

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February 24, 2010

Ron Unz is a Silicon Valley software developer and publisher of The American Conservative.