Over the past week or so, Donald Trump’s claim that Mexican immigrants commit violent crimes in large numbers has been thoroughly debunked. If anything, we have good reason to believe that Mexican immigrants commit crimes at a far lower rate than native-born Americans. But while Mexican immigrants aren’t the menace that Trump imagines them to be, there is another threat to our society that has been almost entirely ignored: the threat that America poses to immigrants and their children.
Consider the extraordinary fact that while immigrants commit crimes at far lower rates than native-born Americans, their children commit crimes at rates that are virtually indistinguishable from other native-born Americans. Why are we seeing such a sharp increase in criminal activity from one generation to the next? In an article published in Crime & Delinquency in 2014, the sociologists Alex Piquero, Bianca Bersani, Thomas Loughran, and Jeffrey Fagan offer a number of possibilities. It could simply be that immigrants fear the consequences of law-breaking more than their native-born children. For unauthorized immigrants in particular, criminal activity might lead not just to punishment, but to deportation. Another explanation is that while immigrants tend to trust the American criminal justice system, which they see as more trustworthy than the authorities back home, their children are more cynical. I would argue that they are more cynical for a good reason.
In The Collapse of American Criminal Justice, William Stuntz argued that the 14th Amendment guarantee of “equal protection of the laws” ought to be taken literally, as it was for a brief period during the Reconstruction era. To Stuntz, this phrase meant that all citizens, regardless of race or economic status, had the same right to the law’s protection. In his view, the concentration of violent crime in a handful of urban neighborhoods ought to be understood as not just a regrettable policy failure, but as a constitutional violation that governments at all levels should be forced to address. That is not the world we live in. The fact that some Americans enjoy greater protection from violent crime than others is taken for granted.
So what might this mean for second-generation Americans, and particularly for Hispanics? Recently, Robert VerBruggen of RealClearPolicy drew on Justice Department data to offer an analysis of crime rates across ethnic groups. He found that while Hispanics commit crimes at a rate 30 percent higher than non-Hispanic whites, some of this discrepancy could be explained by the fact that the Hispanic population is younger than the white population, and the young commit crimes at a higher rate than the old. (It is also worth noting that almost half of Hispanic adults are foreign-born, and that this statistic captures all Hispanics, whether foreign- or native-born.) Yet VerBruggen also observed that Hispanics are twice as likely to be murdered as whites, and they are far more likely to be shot. Given that many Latin American immigrants come from very violent homelands, it is entirely possible that their offspring are safer here by virtue of having been raised in the United States. Nevertheless, their physical safety is at far greater risk than that of white Americans.
This inequality of physical safety has larger consequences: Young men living in violent neighborhoods often have an adversarial relationship with the police, who crack down on petty infractions even as homicides routinely go unpunished. When people do not enjoy the law’s protection, they are likely to grow cynical about the law. If a person believes that law enforcement authorities are fair and impartial in their dealings with the community, he will be far more likely to cooperate with them. If he perceives the authorities to be callous, indifferent, or indeed hostile, he will be far more inclined to commit crime. As Mark A.R. Kleiman, a professor of public policy at NYU, has argued, “[l]iving in chaos makes people more present-oriented and less averse to risk, two characteristics that make crime, with its immediate and certain gains and its deferred and uncertain losses, appear more attractive.” That seems to be at least part of what’s happening with the children of immigrants living in dangerous environments.
The Mexican immigrants Donald Trump so blithely condemns settle in this country with a sense of hope and purpose. Their children, particularly those raised in disadvantaged neighborhoods by virtue of the fact that their parents aren’t in a position to command middle-class incomes, grow up with a much bleaker perspective on the American Dream. Merely growing up on American soil is enough to ensure that second-generation Americans earn more and spend more time in school than their immigrant parents. But economic progress for Mexican-Americans seems to stall from the second to the third generation. Could this reflect the fact that while immigrants are grateful for the opportunity to live in America, their children and grandchildren have a less romantic sense of what it means to grow up on the bottom rungs of our society? I suspect that the answer is yes.
Different people will draw different conclusions from the fact that the children of immigrants commit crimes at a much higher rate than their parents. My own view is that it serves as a reminder that immigration policy is about more than immigrants: It is also about the children of immigrants, and whether we as a country are willing to do what it takes to ensure that they will become full participants in our society.