We have often heard these past few years that immigrants have high crime rates and are a danger to society. This is untrue. In fact, research finds that immigrants actually have lower crime rates than native-born citizens and that their presence may even lower crime rates in the areas in which they live. Although some immigrants no doubt do commit crimes, any claim that immigrants in general are dangerous is simply a scare tactic to inflame public opinion and win votes.
This is not the first time that immigrants to America have been called a menace. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, native-born whites regarded the waves of new immigrants from Ireland, Italy and other European nations as subhuman. During the 1850s, the so-called Know-Nothing Party said that Catholic immigrants were ruining the nation, and the same was said during the 1890s of the new wave of Jewish immigrants. In the 1870s, false claims abounded that Chinese immigrants were sexually molesting white girls and turning them into opium fiends. During the 1930s, false claims also abounded that marijuana use was causing Mexican immigrants to rape and murder whites. And during World War II, more than 120,000 Japanese immigrants and citizens were held in internment camps because of groundless fears that they posed a security risk.
All these canards did an injustice to immigrants. Since the early days of the nation, immigrants have come to America to escape religious and political persecution in their native lands and to seek a better life for their families. They have come here seeking the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness promised by our Declaration of Independence but absent in their homelands. They have come here seeking the liberty and justice for all promised by our Pledge of Allegiance that they did not have at home.
When immigrants arrived to these shores, they found much opportunity, but they also encountered deep-rooted prejudice and hostility. In addition to suffering lies about their behavior, many were beaten and murdered, and many were denied employment, housing and higher education.
Despite this shameful mistreatment, these millions of immigrants continued to love America. Many fought in the nation’s wars and gave their lives for a country that held them in contempt. Over the decades, immigrants have been responsible for many of the scientific, medical and other advances we now enjoy. Tens of millions of Americans today are descended from immigrants who struggled against all odds to achieve the American dream.
Today’s immigrants also yearn for the American dream. They, too, have come here to escape persecution and violence and to seek a better life for their families. Yet they, too, have encountered prejudice and hatred. They, too, have been harassed and told to go back home. Children have been ripped from their parents in haunting images filled with despair.
If America has been great, immigrants have helped it to be great. This was true in the past, this is true now, and this will be true in the future. Immigrants enrich our culture and society, they strengthen our economy, and they may even lower our crime rates. In this new age of know-nothingness, there is one thing we should all know: Immigrants are good for America.
Steven E. Barkan is professor and interim chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of Maine and author of Criminology: A Sociological Understanding. This column reflects his views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.
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