Border walls won't make us safer, but immigrants will - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Border walls won't make us safer, but immigrants will

Despite heated rhetoric, statistics show positive impacts of foreign-born population on Chicago region

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Immigrant Rights Rally Chicago

One of the most contentious debates in U.S. politics at the moment is whether or not current immigration trends constitute a crisis. Although the recent federal government shutdown over funding for a southern border wall is over, there are all indications that the debate will rage on and may even provoke further shutdowns. Clearly, immigration is a topic that will continue to generate a polarizing national debate.

Immigration has consistently been framed as a matter of public safety. Some media frequently report on offenses committed by undocumented people, furthering the impression that immigration fuels disorder and crime. As with many public policy issues, the data tell a different story. And in the case of the Chicago region, the data do not support the idea that immigration is causing a crisis of public safety. In fact, the data suggest it may be the opposite—that foreign-born populations have a positive impact on public safety, and are necessary for the growth, vitality, and well-being of the Chicago region.

Is There a Historically Significant Spike of Immigrants Trying to Cross the Border?

The first question is whether or not there is a national immigration crisis, or a spike in immigrants attempting to enter the country from our southwestern border (spanning California to Texas). The first figure, below, shows the total number of apprehensions of individuals at the southwestern border of the U.S. from fiscal year 2000 through fiscal year 2018. (Fiscal years start October 1 and end September 30, so that President Obama, for instance, took office a little over three months into FY 2009, whereas President Trump took office slightly over three months into FY 2017). In fiscal year 2017, apprehensions were down 25% from the previous year. In fiscal year 2018, the most recent data available (ending September 30, 2018), apprehension were up 30% from the previous year, but still below the yearly average during the Obama administration.

The data do not paint the picture of a crisis of immigrants entering, or attempting to enter, the United States illegally. Border apprehensions sit right below the ten-year average. 

Is There a Connection Between Public Safety and Immigration Across the Chicago Region?

Since immigration is often framed as a matter of crime and public safety, the second question is whether there is any evidence of public safety challenges associated with immigrant population changes.  The figure below examines the seven counties that comprise the Chicago region in terms of both changes in the size of foreign-born populations and changes in the rate of violent crime from 2012-2017. Each county, with the exception of McHenry County, grew its immigrant population. violent crime rates in every county dropped during the same time period, ranging from 9% to 38%. 

The same trend holds true for property crime rates. Each county also saw a drop in the property crime rate and, again, with the exception of McHenry County, an accompanying rise in immigrant population (from 2012-2017). Instead of the correlation some fear between immigration and public safety, looking across the Chicago region’s counties, we actually see the opposite: Increased immigrant populations are associated with favorable crime trends, both in terms of property and violent crime.

Is There a Connection Between Public Safety Concerns and Immigration Within Chicago Communities?

Finally, to drill down even deeper, we ask whether there are any associations between changes in foreign-born populations and crime at the community area level in the City of Chicago. A simple regression indicates that there is no significant relationship between changes in foreign-born population and changes in crime rates (both property and violent crime) in Chicago communities. In fact, the figure below shows that almost all Chicago community areas that witnessed an increase in foreign-born population between 2012-2017 saw a corresponding drop in both the violent and nonviolent crime rates during the same period (City of Chicago crime data also include additional quality of life incidents in addition to just property incidents). Only four of the top 20 community areas with largest immigrant population growth experienced an increase in the violent crime rate. None experienced a growth in nonviolent crime rate. From each of these perspectives, whether looking at the Chicago region or Chicago community areas, the data do not paint the picture of a crisis of immigration and public safety.

Is Immigration Actually an Opportunity for the Region?

Narratives about immigrant-fueled public safety crises are not only false, but the opposite is more likely to be true. Much research has concluded that immigration makes communities more safe, not less, and national studies have already confirmed this positive association between immigration and both property crime and violent crime. Further, increased immigration enforcement in urban neighborhoods is thought to harm relationships between law enforcement and immigrant communities, making community policing efforts less effective. And the research outlines benefits beyond public safety. Immigrant populations help revitalize local economies—the higher the concentration of immigrant-owned businesses in neighborhoods and cities, the greater the economic and public safety returns. It should therefore be no surprise that counties and cities with sanctuary policies tend to have lower crime rates, lower unemployment rates, and higher median income rates. This is not just a major urban city phenomenon. These findings hold true for small municipalities as well.

The Chicago region’s population growth has lagged well behind its peers in the past five years. In fact, it is the only region in the top 20 to have lost population during this time period. In order for the Chicago area to keep pace and continue to be a healthy, thriving, and competitive region, it is necessary to return to growing the population. In Chicago, the immigrant population has been flat over the past three years (in an upcoming blog post we will explore trends in immigration population changes across the Chicago region). Policies that encourage the growth of immigrant population are necessary for the success of the region, and for the safety of its residents.


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