Annual EBHS Conference, 39th Annual Economic and Business History Society Conference

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Importing Crime? The Effect of Immigration on Crime in the United States, 1880-1930
Rowena Gray, Giovanni Peri

Last modified: 2014-03-10


New data on arrest rates by type of crime for 15-20 of the United States’ largest cities has been collected from archival police sources and covers the period 1880 to 1930. This adds new information to the pre-FBI statistical dark age of American crime. This information will be used to analyse the effect of immigration on urban crime during this period of liberal immigration policy and substantial immigrant flows. The channels through which immigration might have an effect include: cultural differences in propensities to commit crimes; a potential increase in easy targets for crime that immigration might induce; an indirect increase due to natives being pushed out of the legal labour market and into illegal activities and a “social disorganization” effect whereby greater turnover in urban housing might loosen the moral deterrent to commit crime for immigrants and natives alike. For the subset of cities and years where arrest information is available separately by nativity, these channels can be explored in more detail.

The aim of the paper is to bring new evidence of the long term impact of immigration on crime and to use the historical laboratory to estimate this effect in a setting of almost free immigration policy. This is a unique opportunity to test this extreme case and may inform the current debate surrounding this question. Existing studies have mostly used modern U.S. and U.K. data and there is no consensus about the overall impact of immigrants on crime. Some, such as Butchel and Piehl (Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 1998), find little evidence that immigration boosts crime rates, while others, including Borjas, Grogger and Hanson (Economica, 2010), find evidence that immigrants have a relatively large effect on crime by pushing certain groups who are unsuccessful in the legal labour market (black men mainly) into illegal activities. Existing historical studies have used information about the stock of inmates in U.S. prisons to analyse this question, but arrest data is more in line with modern studies (see, for example, Moehling and Piehl, Demography, 2009). Finally, economic historians have focused on the labour market impacts of immigration and virtually ignored other important channels that may have affected the lives of native-born individuals. This study seeks to redress this imbalance.