Do immigrants bring crime?

Charis Kubrin

Charis Kubrin. Photo by Karen Tapia

Professor Charis Kubrin says the answer is “no”

By Matt Coker 

Charis Kubrin was a professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., when she came across a March 11, 2006, New York Times opinion piece titled “Open Doors Don’t Invite Criminals” by one of her colleagues in academia. Harvard Professor Robert Sampson’s central finding was that “evidence points to increased immigration as a major factor associated with the lower crime rate of the 1990s (and its recent leveling off).”

Kubrin, now a UCI professor of criminology, law and society and member of the Racial Democracy, Crime and Justice Network, recently recalled her reaction to the op-ed. 

“He heard from critics who couldn't believe that immigrants were less crime-prone than their native-born counterparts, and just didn't buy the findings,” she says. “And there was vitriol and animosity and anger and hatred behind the critique. This was a famous criminologist who was president of the American Society of Criminology and one of the most respected and cited scholars in the field, and I was blown away by the extent of skepticism regarding his findings but also the nastiness of the comments.” 

At least Sampson’s experiences prepared Kubrin, who incredibly decided to launch her own research agenda into immigration and crime. When asked whether there has been any negative blowback to her latest findings, which show crime rates have so far not been affected by California becoming a sanctuary state, Kubrin answered with a laugh, “my work in this area is one big negative blowback.”

Not that such criticism is warranted. 

“It turns out we have studies dating all the way back to the early 1900s showing immigrants are less crime-prone than their native-born counterparts and that immigration to an area has no impact on crime,” Kubrin says. “So, I decided I wanted to get involved and work in this area both to help inform that literature and to minimize the gap between what we know and what people perceive when it comes to immigration and crime.”

She has gone on to publish dozens of studies examining the immigration-crime nexus or, as she put it, “myth-bust around what we know about immigration and crime.”

The culmination of that body of research was a meta-analysis she conducted with long-time collaborator Professor Graham Ousey a few years ago. Their analysis examined more than 50 studies published from 1994 to 2014.

“The big finding from the meta-analysis, not surprisingly, was immigration and crime were either not related or were negatively related, meaning immigration to an area actually caused crime to go down,” Kubrin says. “That, for me, was the nail in the coffin with respect to that research question.”

She pivoted to exploring the impact immigration policy has on crime and other outcomes. Which brings us to Senate Bill 54, the legislative policy that officially turned California into a sanctuary state in 2017.

Under SB54, local law enforcement agencies are limited in their cooperation with federal authorities policing immigration. 

“The reality is that, historically, immigration enforcement was left up to the federal government,” Kubrin explains. “That was intentional. ... Over time, though, we have slowly been enacting what’s called the devolution of immigration enforcement, which asks local officials to get more involved in that enforcement. The policing of immigration continues to get pushed down to local levels, whether we’re talking about police officers, teachers, doctors, nurses or local officials in general.

“SB54, to a large extent, was a push back against this devolution of immigration enforcement, but it was also a direct response to President Trump’s executive order which directed funding and resources toward restrictive immigration policies,” she continues. “California said, ‘We’re opting out of that, we don’t agree that these policies are helpful. They’re more likely to be harmful and, yeah, if we want to increase trust between local police and immigrants in California communities, then we need to take a stand against this.’ So California implemented SB54 in 2017 and, of course, immediately the critics started in [saying], ‘Well, that’s going to cause crime rates to rise because you're encouraging undocumented immigrants to settle in California. They're not going to be deterred from committing crimes. You’re undermining the actions of the federal government. We’re going to see crime skyrocket.’ That's a fair question, right? But, what happened with crime after SB54 was passed? Well, we had no research one way or the other, so this is the first study that attempts to examine SB54’s impact on crime.”

Kubrin and her former graduate student Bradley Bartos, now an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, collected violent and property crime data from every state starting in 1970 (the first year uniform crime data became available) and continuing through 2017 (when SB54 was enacted). An analysis determined which combination of non-sanctuary states mimicked California’s violent and property crime trends prior to SB54 being implemented. The team then tracked crime from “synthetic California” alongside that from real California in 2018, the first full year after SB54 with available crime data. 

“Any gap that occurs between the two time series following the intervention can be interpreted as SB54’s causal impact,” Kubrin explains. “According to the findings, there’s a very small gap but it’s not meaningful; it's basically noise. In other words, SB54 didn't make an impact one way or the other on violent or property crime.”

Just before the pandemic struck, Kubrin presented “Sanctuary Status and Crime in California: Is There a Connection?” at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Annual Meeting, and the AAAS magazine Science covered her findings.

Kubrin recommends that crime and SB54 continue to be analyzed in subsequent years, calling her research with Bartos “step one. I mean, I would encourage this with any policy.” She also encourages policy makers to consider commissioning such studies before implementing laws. “It’s concerning when a policy happens, proponents and opponents often start arguing absent data relevant to that argument, lacking evaluations or studies to inform the question. What a lot of opponents will do, and proponents will do this too, is they will look at what happened to crime after a policy was implemented and if crime goes up, they will say, ‘Welp, I told you. Crime went up because of SB54.’ And if crime goes down, supporters will say, ‘See, I told you: Crime is down as a result of SB54.’ That is not a proper policy evaluation.”

With no data to rely on, high-profile incidents become anecdotal fodder for policy opponents, such as what happened after Zachary Castaneda allegedly went on an Aug. 7, 2019 crime and killing spree that left four people dead and two others wounded. At the time, the gang member was out on bail for a felony and two misdemeanors that followed his early release from prison under California Assembly Bill 109, which reduces the state inmate population. “This person should have been in prison, and not allowed to be in our community committing these violent acts,” said Garden Grove Police Chief Tom DaRé. “As a police chief, I implore our policy makers to reevaluate their policies on criminal justice.”

Kubrin is familiar with the case but not only because the killings happened in the same county that includes her Irvine home and campus. Scooting her office chair to face the computer screen, Kubrin punched some keys before stating, “I’ll read you an email I got today.” The subject line read “Zachary Castaneda” on the note that referenced “Releasing Low-Level Offenders Did Not Unleash a Crime Wave in California,” a Washington Post op-ed that she and fellow criminology, law and society professor Carroll Seron co-authored in 2016.

I just happened across the story and was wondering if you had any insight for we simple people as to why Zachary Castaneda should've been out of prison. Have you looked at his record? As a 16-year vet of driving a real police car, I can tell you that if you didn't have such horseshit laws in your state, you’d be a helluva lot safer. And even though it won’t amount to a grain of salt in an argument with you, if you actually saw the truth, legislators like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck E. Cheese would be residing in their California homes 24/7, 365 just living on the pension we provide them. Zachary Castaneda isn’t the issue, he is the problem and so are you.

“I get emails like that constantly,” says Kubrin, who knows that researchers like her cannot let raw emotion and political winds tarnish their work. 

“Opinions such as these really should not be informing the decisions that we’re making at the state level with regards to policy,” she says. “For me, it’s immediately, let’s do a study and see what the evidence says.” 

What happens instead is journalists contact Kubrin about any crime implications from new policies, as occurred with both AB109 and Proposition 47, a 2014 state ballot initiative overwhelmingly supported by California voters that reduced prison populations by changing some nonviolent felonies like shoplifting and drug possession to misdemeanors. 

“For years I got calls from reporters asking what does the research find about Prop. 47 and crime, and I would say, ‘I have no idea because there’s not been any study done yet.’ Finally, I got fed up and did the study, this one also with Brad Bartos” Kubrin says with a laugh. “It was the first study to be published on Prop. 47 and crime.”

And, her study with Bartos was the first on SB54 and crime. 

In recognition of her research contributions, including her work on immigration policy and criminal justice reform, Kubrin recently was elected to the Council on Criminal Justice, an organization that advances understanding of the criminal justice policy choices facing the nation and builds consensus for solutions that enhance safety and justice for all.

That Kubrin is at UCI to absorb the praise and criticism that comes with her research is ironic when you consider she could not get a school in the University of California system to accept her into college out of high school. She’s originally from West Los Angeles but moved with her parents to the San Fernando Valley in her teen years. 

“I was one of those students who got very low SAT scores,” Kubrin says. “I had a lot of anxiety around test taking. I was a really hard worker but it wasn’t reflected in my SAT scores. So, I was easily overlooked. My dad went to UCLA. I thought, ‘Well, I’ll give UCLA a try’ and was rejected. It wasn’t meant to be.”

She wound up at Smith College, a small, all-female, liberal arts institution in Northampton, Massachusetts. 

“It ended up being the perfect place for me,” she recalls. “There I discovered sociology, although first I wanted to be an anthropology major, then I switched to psychology and then economics. But in the end I double-majored in sociology and Spanish language and literature.”

She was confronted with a big decision upon graduation: pursue an advanced degree in sociology or join the Peace Corps. 

“I like to remind my parents that they talked me out of going into the Peace Corps because they felt I would lose the opportunity to go to a good grad school,” says Kubrin, who went to the University of Washington in Seattle. “In grad school, I was interested in every area of sociology — political sociology, sex and gender, the family, race and ethnic relations, demography, you name it. But it was the criminology professors at ‘udub’ that, I don’t know, I just really connected with them. I ended up concentrating in criminology and received great training there. In the end, I just never wanted to leave school. There was a very clear path for me.”

The path led to her first academic job at George Washington University, where she would remain for 11 years. 

“At some point, I wanted to make my way back to California,” Kubrin says. “I was married and had a son and my parents were still living out in the Valley. I wanted to be closer to them.”

But first, she had to convince her husband, Kevork “Kev” Abazajian, a University of Maryland physics professor who had received his doctorate degree at UC San Diego. 

“I asked him one day, ‘How do you feel about moving back to the West Coast?’ He was born in Armenia. He moved to the States when he was 5 years old. He grew up in Texas. His parents were both chemical engineers. So, it didn’t really matter which coast we lived on because Texas is halfway.”

Kubrin applied for a job at UCI and got it.

“When UCI made me the offer, I said, ‘Well, I have a husband who is also an academic.’ And, I will credit Mike Gottfredson, the former provost, and his policy that he enacted to deal with spousal hiring, unlike at many other institutions. There was a series of steps where they reached out to the physics department, we sent [Abazajian’s] CV over there, they said ‘We’re interested, let’s take a look,’ and my husband flew out there. At that point, I had the offer; we were hoping for my husband to get an offer. I remember telling him as he left for his flight, ‘If you screw this up, I will kill you.’ [Laughs.] You know, we were kind of holding our breath and then, boom, he got the offer. And, we were ecstatic.”

Her family has settled into life in Irvine. Through 314 Action, a group that recruits scientists to run for public office, Abazajian entered the November 2018 Irvine City Council race for two open seats. Out of 12 candidates, including winners Farrah Khan and Anthony Kuo, Abazajian finished fifth. 

“The thing is UCI is the biggest employer in Irvine, and there’s very little connection between what’s going on on campus and local leaders, so he put his hat in the ring,” Kubrin says of her husband. “He’s still very involved in local politics. I am proud of him.”

She confides that the local election process was eye-opening. “We’re trained as scientists and politics is a totally different world,” says Kubrin, who through her own research has learned to roll with the reality of elected leaders, including a certain ex-president, who falsely claimed that immigrants and pro-immigrant policies cause crime to rise. 

“… I get frustrated because do I think we should have harsh, restrictive and exclusionary policy aimed at immigrants? No, and I might have personal reasons for that but mainly it’s because the research doesn't show that such policy actually helps public safety. It’s always back to: What do the data say? What does the research say?”

Mimi Ko Cruz
Director of Communications