Immigration affects crime perception, not crime rates

A Haitian immigrant walks with fellow immigrants at La Vega Central market on November 19, 2021 in Santiago, Chile. (Credit: John Moore/Getty Images)

A new study shows that migrants don’t cause crime rates to increase, but false perceptions endure.

Studying a country whose proportion of migrants has tripled in less than ten years, the researchers found immigration significantly affects people’s perceptions of crime but has no effect on actual crime.

“Many people seem to believe a connection exists between crime and immigration. We wanted to explore why this is the case, by looking at the example of Chile, a country recently exposed to a massive influx of immigrants,” says Nicolas Ajzenman, a professor of economics at McGill University.

“In Chile, migrants represented close to 6.5% of the population in 2018. Not only did the magnitude change, but also the composition of immigrants changed strongly in recent years, with the arrival of people from Venezuela and Haiti, a trend is similar to other Latin American countries,” he says.

The researchers found that people who are more exposed to immigration inflows are more likely to rank crime as their biggest concern. They’re more likely to believe that crime is affecting their quality of life, and more likely to believe that they will be a victim of a crime soon.

However, those citizens weren’t any more likely to have been victims of any crime in the previous months. Nor did the number of homicides grow disproportionately in the municipalities where they live, according to the researchers.

The researchers also found that not only do people become scared, but they also take action, such as installing more alarms or paying for private security. These misperceptions may be driven in part by local media, as crime-related fears and reactions are more significant in areas with a relatively large number of local media stations, the researchers say.

The researchers investigated whether a plausible explanation for people’s fears could be discrimination against certain types of immigrants. Interestingly, the researchers found that crime-related concerns are mainly driven by immigrants that don’t have ethnically European origins—suggesting that immigrants with European origins enjoy different status compared to other immigrant groups. They also found that the impact on citizens in terms of behavioral reactions, such as installing alarms, appear to be more pronounced when immigrants are less educated.

“Immigration is increasingly an important topic in contemporary political debates. And hostility towards immigrants has become a powerful component of far-right politics and extremist groups around the world,” says Ajzenman.

“Our research demonstrates that the concerns of citizens and governments over the potential relationship between immigration and crime in Chile appear to be unfounded, which holds significant implications for policy.”

The study appears in American Economic Journal.

Source: McGill University