The development of organized criminal activities among certain ethnic groups has perpetuated the notion that undesirable elements of society have been disproportionately represented among new immigrant populations in the United States. Popular perceptions that newly arrived immigrants are often responsible for rises in crime rates has made it more difficult for immigrants to assimilate. At the same time, the new immigrants themselves have often been victims of criminal activity.
The widespread belief that immigrants are prone to commit crimes at higher rates than members of the general population has affected attitudes and laws throughout the United States since the founding of the republic. As early as the 1790’s, the U.S. Congress expressed concern that alien criminal elements were trying to sabotage the new government. Each successive wave of new immigrants has generally been judged to have been morally inferior to members of groups already established in the country. Patterns of systematic discrimination against new immigrants, noticeable as early as the 1830’s when practiced against Irish immigrants, were repeated against the Chinese during the latter half of the century, against Italians, Jews, and eastern European immigrants between 1880 and 1920, and again in the late twentieth century against Asians and Latin Americans.
While much anti-immigrant discrimination took the form of laws aimed at controlling entry or restricting economic opportunity, many immigrants also found themselves targets of various
Although immigrants may not have committed crimes at a greater rate than members of ethnic populations already established in the United States, several factors have contributed to making recent arrivals more prone to break the law. First among those factors has been a general unfamiliarity with American law and customs, often exacerbated by the newcomers’ inability to speak English fluently. Many immigrants have arrived with little education and few skills, factors that have often kept them in low-paying jobs. Additionally, the high costs of living–sometimes the fault of landlords or shopkeepers who have gouged naive immigrants for rents, goods, and services–have made it difficult for immigrants to work their way out of poverty.
Whenever immigrants have arrived in large numbers from the same countries, they have tended to group together in enclaves that have given them some comfort amid the strange surroundings in their new homeland. The newest immigrants frequently moved into tenements whose squalid living conditions have contributed to high crime rates. Fellow immigrants from their homelands have typically helped them find work, food, clothing, and lodging on a temporary basis. Close cooperation among immigrants has helped newcomers to adjust, but it has also been looked upon with suspicion by those already living in the United States. Moreover, the tendency of recent immigrants to live in close proximity makes newcomers easy targets for those wishing to take advantage of them, and their communities often become places where crime can run rampant. This tendency becomes cyclical: As members of one immigrant group become established and begin moving into the American mainstream, other groups take their place on the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder. Members of older immigrant groups typically become the most vocal opponents of the newest arrivals.
The first groups of immigrants to suffer systematic discrimination as criminal populations were the
Ironically, because many immigrants were also perceived as hard-working and willing to take jobs at low wages, they were often considered threats to those already living in certain areas. As a result, they were often targets of mob violence intended to drive undesirable immigrants out of communities. This was the experience of the Irish in both New York City and
The first wave of many immigrant groups included a disproportionate number of young men, a subgroup within any population who are more prone to be both perpetrators and victims of criminal activity, especially activities such as gambling, public drunkenness, disorderly conduct, prostitution, and drugs. In many cases, young men would travel to America alone so they could establish themselves in jobs before sending for their families. In other cases, the demand for male workers in the United States led to massive numbers of men arriving in the country to take on jobs that those already living in the country could not or would not perform. For example, the wave of
Throughout the nineteenth century attacks on Chinese communities were routinely carried out by white Americans who distrusted the Chinese and often blamed them for taking away jobs. Victims of intense racial prejudice, the Chinese were subjected to beatings, lootings, arson against homes and businesses, and even murder. They were driven to establish their own separate communities virtually independent of mainstream America. These
A similar pattern emerged among
The growing fear that immigrants were a principal reason for increased crime facilitated passage of a number of laws restricting immigration, especially of specific ethnic or racial groups. In addition to the Chinese exclusion acts, the
From the early decades of the nineteenth century, immigrant communities were breeding grounds for gangs in American cities. Usually made up of young men, these gangs frequently preyed upon their fellow immigrants.
While gangs were loosely organized and tended to operate principally to provide immediate wealth or status to their members, a more formalized version of criminal activity sprang up in immigrant communities beginning in the late nineteenth century. What came to be known as
A number of men who had been engaged in criminal activities in Italy were among those who were allowed into the United States during the forty-year period beginning in 1880 when Italian immigration reached its height. In cities where
Suspected members of the Russian mob being escorted by Federal Bureau of Investigation agents after being arrested on extortion charges in 1995.
The Italian Mafia was not the only organized crime operation to prey on immigrant communities. A
In 1965, the U.S. Congress passed a new
Some new immigrants did, however, become involved in serious criminal activity. Many of the
Studies of immigrant communities settling in the United States during the late twentieth century have repeatedly shown that first-generation immigrants have been less likely to commit crimes than members of the population at large. Second-generation immigrants, however, have often drifted into criminal behavior, largely because they have not been prepared for good jobs or have found it easier to make money by resorting to illegal activities. Young men who drop out of school are especially prone to join gangs that terrorize local neighborhoods, making their own immigrant neighbors their principal victims. This has been especially true in Hispanic and Vietnamese communities, but other ethnic groups have not been immune to gang activity in their neighborhoods.
During the late twentieth century, youth gangs made up of Asians and Latin Americans began operating in the West and Southwest and spread throughout most major metropolises and many smaller American cities. These gangs have generally operated within the finite boundaries of specific neighborhoods, in which they claim exclusive rights to all criminal activities. Robbery and extortion have been the most common crimes committed by gang members, but they have also often employed physical violence. In extreme cases, gang members have resorted to murder when their demands are not met, or when victims have sought help from law enforcement. Gangs have also used murder to deter members from rival gangs from violating their own “turf.”
Compounding the problem of gang violence often associated with Latino and Asian immigrants has been the growth of international
News stories sensationalizing violence associated with gangs and drug activity have fed
In a nine-month investigation code-named “Operation Gilded Cage,” more than four hundred federal, state, and local law-enforcement officers searched about fifty San Francisco Bay Area brothels, homes, and businesses, such as this San Francisco massage parlor. In July, 2005, they arrested more than two dozen people on charges of smuggling foreign women into the country through Canada and forcing them to work as prostitutes.
In 1996, the federal
Freilich, Joshua D., and Graeme Newman, eds. Crime and Immigration. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2007. Collection of twenty-three essays dealing with relationships between immigrant populations and crime in a number of countries, including the United States. Launer, Harold M., and Joseph E. Palenski, eds. Crime and the New Immigrants. Springfield, Ill.: C. C. Thomas, 1989. Essays reprinted from publications on criminology and sociology focusing on issues related to criminal activities associated with immigrant populations that arrived in the United States during the last decades of the twentieth century. Mangione, Jerre, and Ben Morreale. La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian-American Experience. New York: HarperCollins, 1992. Study of Italian Americans that includes lengthy sections on crimes perpetrated by and upon Italian Americans. Also covers the activities of the Italian Mafia in America. Martinez, Ramiro, Jr., and Matthew T. Lee. “On Immigration and Crime.” In Criminal Justice 2000. Vol. 1 in The Nature of Crime: Continuity and Change. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, 2000. Examination of the historical relationship between crime and immigrant communities, stressing disparities between public perceptions and empirical data. Martinez, Ramiro, Jr., and Abel Valenzuela Jr., eds. Immigration and Crime: Race, Ethnicity, and Violence. New York: New York University Press, 2006. Useful collection of essays exploring relationships between immigrant populations and criminal activities, focusing on causes of criminal behavior among immigrants. Articles examine individual ethnic groups in a number of major American urban centers. Includes extensive list of sources for further study. Waters, Tony. Crime and Immigrant Youth. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1999. Explains the cultural and sociological factors accounting for criminal activities engaged in by young members of immigrant communities. Includes a chapter on juvenile immigrants in America.
Captive Thai workers
Chinese secret societies
Ku Klux Klan
Smuggling of immigrants