The United States is safer today than at nearly any other point in the last 25 years.
Although crime has increased slightly in select U.S. cities in recent years, on average, crime in the U.S. has fallen precipitously since 1991, when homicide rates were 9.8 per 100,000 residents. Today, that rate has been cut in half to around five deaths for every 100,000 residents. Overall, crime in the U.S. has decreased by 64 percent since 1990.
Despite this, Donald Trump and the Republican Party have held the American public hostage for nearly three weeks as a means of forcing taxpayers to include more than $5 billion in the budget to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
In a live address to the nation Tuesday night, Trump said, “All Americans are hurt by uncontrolled illegal immigration.”
The problem is, they aren’t. The truth is, immigrants make us safer.
While multiple factors have contributed to falling crime rates, an overwhelming body of evidence demonstrates that crime in the U.S. is significantly lower in communities with relatively more immigrants. According to Christopher Lyons and his colleagues at the University of New Mexico, immigrants revitalize communities within the developed world by revamping urban communities, improving family and neighborhood ties, and jump-starting local economies.
A border wall with Mexico ― no matter who funds it ― is unlikely to improve security in the U.S.
As a corollary, our research in Mexico finds that when immigrants move to the U.S. and then subsequently return home, they have a similar crime-reducing effect within their home communities. In an article recently published in World Development, we showed how return migrants have contributed to significant reductions in violence across Mexico.
This coincides with other recent research on return migration, which shows that when migrants return home they have a positive effect on the well-being of their communities. While working abroad, migrants save money, develop new skills, improve their education and acquire social capital. If they move back home, they come back different people than they were when they left.
It’s hardly a surprise then to find that when migrants come back, they inject physical, human and social capital into their communities, where residents typically lack formal training and broad networks. The know-how that migrants acquire abroad helps them settle back into life in their home countries and has important multiplying effects within local economies. In Mexico, for example, 75 percent of return migrants become part of the economically active population, and 70 percent of them within stable areas of the formal economy. And this, in a country where the vast majority of people hold informal, part-time positions.
This research in Mexico contributes to a better understanding of the relationship between migration and crime in general. Although researchers typically study crime within cities and states, our study shows that transnational factors ― such as international immigration ― deeply influence how safe communities are. In a world where immigration is on the rise, policymakers and everyday citizens should find solace in our findings, which contribute to our understanding of the positive effects of immigration.
Regarding Trump’s government shutdown and his claims of a “crisis” at the border, our work implies that a border wall with Mexico ― no matter who funds it ― is unlikely to improve security in the U.S. In fact, by continuing to deport law-abiding immigrants and discouraging immigration to the U.S. at all costs, policymakers in Washington will leave communities both in the U.S. and in Latin America worse off. This is before we even consider the fact that, as other studies have revealed, “The push to prioritize prosecuting illegal border crossers has begun to impact the capacity of federal prosecutors to enforce other federal laws.”
That is, given the abundance of evidence demonstrating net-positive effects of immigrants, coupled with our research on return migration in Mexico, we’d be handicapping ourselves both socially and economically by building a wall. And since we know that immigrants contribute to reductions in crime, keeping them out actually makes the nation less safe.
Americans need to have a more constructive conversation about the actual effects of immigration on crime. Unfortunately, this seems unlikely.
Trump’s wall has absolutely nothing to do with physical security. Rather, like all walls, the proposed border wall is about constructing a cultural barrier, not a physical one. Unless we tear down the cultural walls inside our own minds, this dispute is likely to live on beyond Trump’s presidency.
Benjamin Waddell, Ph.D., is an associate professor of sociology at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. He spent the last two years living in Managua, Nicaragua, where he researched matters related to development, international migration and crime.
Matías Fontenla is an associate professor of economics at the University of New Mexico. His research focuses on economic development with a special interest on Latin American issues.