Donald Trump on Latino Criminality

By Ivan Light
Are Immigrants Criminals?  The facts show that just is not so.

The United States has a long history of immigration - crime has been part of that history from the very beginning. In fact, the State of Georgia was originally founded as a British penal colony, though Australia replaced it quite soon thereafter.
Complaints about immigrant criminality are as old as immigration and older even than the United States of America. The 1911 40-volume US Senate report on immigration included a whole volume on immigrant criminality in response, of course, to complaints that immigrants were more frequently criminals than natives. Another volume dealt with immigrants as "charity seekers," an obsolete category of pre-welfare state freeloaders.  
The Senate's research did not show that immigrants then were disproportionately criminals or welfare cases. In fact, that research and all subsequent research has found that immigrants are less frequently either prisoners or freeloaders than comparable native-born people. That is, comparing working-class immigrants and working- class natives (not working-class immigrants and native-born billionaires), immigrants were and are less likely to wind up in prison and on the welfare rolls than natives. The bulge in immigrant criminality begins in the native-born generation, the children of immigrants. The immigrants are less likely than natives to be criminals, but their native-born children are somewhat more likely to be criminals than the native-born children of non-immigrants. Al Capone was a native born American, not an immigrant.

The usual explanation is this. Working-class immigrants come from poor countries, and they are initially delighted and pleased at the wages and working conditions they find here because both are so much better than those prevailing in their countries of origin. They write home about their good luck and bring more immigrants from the homeland in response to their glowing reports.

In fact, they have the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs at the lowest wages, but they do not realize it. Slaughterhouse work and agricultural labor are illustrative cases in point. Upton Sinclair's 1906 classic, The Jungle, dealt with immigrants in the slaughterhouse industry. But so long as they compare their American jobs with what they endured at home, immigrants are happy and satisfied. Moreover, they do not feel that America owes them anything. America took them in as strangers, gave them higher paying jobs than they had previously enjoyed at home, and treated them to the joys of democracy and freedom. What is not to like in all that?

However, the immigrants' native-born children realize that their parents are doing the worst jobs at the lowest wages. They are unsatisfied with that level of work, and hope to do better in their own lifetime. Most try, and many succeed over time in moving up the social-economic hierarchy. The American Dream worked for them. The American Dream is really important to maintain for fairness sake but also for the sake of social stability. We want the American Dream to work.  However, some immigrant youth, rejecting their parents' low status, also reject the legal economy's options, finding in illegal work much more lucrative opportunities. They are helped in this respect by widespread feelings of alienation in their generation. The native-born children of low-wage immigrants are likely to feel, often correctly, that folks like them do not receive a fair shake in American society.  For some children of immigrants, the thought that "America cheated and abused us" turns into, "but I will get ahead by foul means if fair are not available."  In a word the children of immigrants are more alienated than were their parents, but the alienation is something they learned in the United States. It is not a cultural flaw imported from abroad. It is as American as apple pie.

Despite these repeated generational contrasts in our immigration history, the complaint about immigrant criminal surfaces again and again in American history. To what should we attribute that recurrence? Of course, immigrants commit crimes, but they do not commit them in greater proportion than comparable non-immigrants. Immigrants commit crimes that working-class people commit such as robbery, burglary, and shop-lifting. They rarely embezzle funds from banks or speculate on foreign stock markets with depositors' money. Therefore, if the share of immigrants in the general population increases, the number (not the class-adjusted rate) of robberies might increase in a locality, but the rate of embezzlement from banks (the number divided by the population) will decrease! If immigrants take over what had been an upper class neighborhood as frequently happens in invasion-succession sequences in urban areas, then the number of robberies and burglaries will increase in a neighborhood because immigrants are of the socio-economic level that perpetrates that kind of crime.

But that increase does not substantiate the claim that immigrants are more likely than comparable non-immigrants to commit any crimes except, of course, the crime of being illegally in the United States. Nonetheless, given the above, it is easy to understand how an increase in the number of blue-collar crimes is often perceived as a product of extravagant immigrant criminality even when it is nothing of the kind. For this reason, I do not attribute all native peoples' complaints about immigrant criminality to nativism, xenophobia, and racism as some social scientists do. The social world is a complex place, hard to understand, and common sense is what tells us that the earth is flat. We sometimes get hard things wrong for the best of reasons.

 That said, let us turn to Donald Trump, a self-made billionaire born a multi-millionaire. What does he understand about the cycle of alienation in the foreign and native-born generation of immigrants? What does he understand about the criminality of social classes?  When Trump charges that most Latino immigrants are criminals and rapists, his claim is patently absurd, not just false. Trump won't find more criminals and rapists among immigrant Latinos than among working-class non-immigrants. And, even among the latter, most people are neither criminals nor rapists. With the possible exception of bankers and real-estate moguls, most people work hard for an honest living and, as Bill Clinton said, "play by the rules."  Trump's complaint has no basis in reality and can only be understood as a political statement intended to win him votes on the xenophobic, nativist, and racist wing of the Republican Party. Trump has plainly cut loose from any rational discourse on this topic and, flinging evidence aside, has decided to capture headlines by talking nonsense. In the short run, that strategy works. He captures headlines. But I believe that, as Abraham Lincoln said, "you can fool some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time."  I do not worry about Donald Trump. He will self-destruct for this reason.