President Obama's new deportation relief programs could have a surprising side effect: lower crime rates.
An estimated 5 million people could be eligible to apply for work permits under new policies announced by the president last month. If history is any indication, those work permits will not only boost salaries — they'll help prevent crime.
Obama's immigration plan is controversial, but from a law enforcement perspective, it's a no-brainer, according to some experts. First, they say, undocumented immigrants will be able to come out of the shadows and report crime when it happens—without fear of deportation. Second, the application process for deportation relief requires people to submit their fingerprints and a wealth of personal information, all useful for police in future criminal investigations. Third is the economic argument: if people get better jobs, they'll be less likely to commit crime.
Scott Ross Baker, an assistant professor at the Kellogg School of Management, studied that phenomenon during his doctoral work at Stanford University. Baker looked at the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), the last large-scale legalization program for immigrants who entered the country illegally or overstayed a visa. After acquiring legal status, those immigrants saw their salaries go up — and their chance of committing a crime go down.
The effect was significant: over a four year period, crime rates dropped by anywhere from 2 to 6 percent in counties where at least 1 percent of the population was made up of successful IRCA applicants. The study found that 80,000 to 240,000 fewer crimes were committed each year as a result of the legalization.
The reduction came mainly from a drop in property crimes; violent crime fell, too, but not as dramatically. Baker expects the new deportation relief programs will have a similar effect.
His "best guess" is that crime could fall by 1 to 3 percent. “It’s likely to be less strong than we saw back in the 1980s with IRCA, just because of the uncertainty about the permanence of it.”
IRCA gave undocumented immigrants legal status in the United States, while Obama's programs only issue deportation relief and work permits on a temporary basis, renewable every three years.
Other factors may make the impact on crime even stronger, however. People applying for deportation relief will need to submit fingerprints, as well as a wealth of personal information.
Cynthia J. Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, believes the data will help fight crime and strengthen national security.
"The benefit is that there aren't millions of people living in the shadows, these people come forward, they have documents, we know who they are, where they live, whether they're contributing to the IRS, whether they have driver's licenses," she said. "I just think it's much better to have faces and individuals who are known rather than constantly trying to evade law enforcement."
Once people receive deportation relief and work permits, they will be more accessible to police. People who are afraid of being deported are more likely to avoid law enforcement, which makes it harder to solve crimes, according to Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank.
"We've been in the precarious position of trying to act as immigration agents," Burbank said. "That's created a mistrust in our community and that's left a percentage of our population not willing to cooperate with police."
Not all law enforcement leaders think Obama's immigration moves will have a positive impact on crime. Thomas Hodgson, sheriff in Bristol County, Massachusetts, is organizing a group of sheriffs to protest the policy changes in Washington, D.C., next week, and has recruited two dozen so far.
In a letter to fellow sheriffs, he said that deportation relief would only encourage more illegal immigration and create "serious threats" to national security. “The citizens of our nation are counting on the American Sheriffs," he wrote, "to fulfill our oath to preserve law and order and live up to responsibilities as guardians of the United States Constitution.”
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.