The growth of immigration in Spain has not caused a rise in crime

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There is a social perception that growth in the immigrant population tends to lead to a rise in the crime rate, but a study carried out by Universidad Carlos III of Madrid (UC3M) demonstrates that this cause and effect relationship cannot be inferred in the case of Spain, according to the Agency SINC.

“The crime rate in Spain is low compared to those found in the rest of Europe. In the past few years, crime rates have risen slightly, while the immigrant population has increased at a much greater pace. This points to a positive, but very low, correlation between immigration and crime”, explains César Alonso Borrego, a professor in UC3M’s Economics Department and co-author of the study, together with Pablo Vázquez, of the Universidad Complutense of Madrid and Nuno Garoupa, of the University of Illinois (EEUU). In the article, which has been published in the journal American Law and Economics Review, they analyze “whether or not this correlation implies that there is a causal relationship between immigration and crime”. The conclusion is that it does not.

The researchers constructed an empirical model to measure the probability of a crime being committed based on environmental and individual characteristics –such as the level of education–. They used data from the Ministry of the Interior on the crimes committed every year in every province of Spain for every 10.000 inhabitants from 1999 to 2009; using census data and the Survey of the Economically Active Population they gleaned information on the immigrant population; they also took into account environmental factors such as the provincial per capita Gross Domestic Product and the provincial unemployment rate.

“We studied the number of crimes per inhabitant en each place for each year and, among the relevant variable, the proportion of immigrants according to their origin and characteristics (age, sex, education and language)”, the expert states. Because the researchers were using added information from the provinces, there was a potential problem of endogeneity, that is, of unobservable differences between provinces, - for example, access to opportunities – that affect both the level of crime and the proportion of immigrants.

“There tend to be more crimes in places with more economic opportunities, which is precisely where a greater number of immigrants tend to concentrate. This results in a positive correlation between immigration and crime, which could induce people to erroneously attribute a causal connection between the two phenomenon”, the researcher emphasizes. However, because longitudinal data – values for each variable over a period of several years -- were also available to the researchers, they managed to consistently estimate that causal effect.

These estimates confirm the importance of language and education. “Specifically, among Spanish-speakers and, to a lesser degree, those immigrants who came from the European Union, there were fewer problems with crime. Likewise, the immigrants’ educational level, relatively high with respect to that of the natives, further explains the fact that immigration’s effect on crime is relatively moderate”, the researchers affirm.

Young males, those who commit the most crimes

In any case, as happens in other countries, a higher proportion of young males is associated with a higher crime rate, given that this is the segment of the population that is responsible for the majority of crimes. The expert emphasizes that “the proportion of young males is greater among the immigrant population than it is among the native population”.

Unlike the situation in the USA, the phenomenon of a massive influx of immigrants is a relatively recent one in the European Union, particularly in Spain, where the weight of the immigrant population has increased since the year 2000. “Out results are in line with what is known as the ‘Latin paradox’ in the USA, where an influx of immigrants from Mexico was follows by a reduction in crime in some areas, because the Mexican immigrants in the US were a ‘virtuous selection’ of individuals whose propensity to commit crimes was inferior to that of the native population. Immigration is not a homogeneous phenomenon; it is composed of widely varying groups who require different policies depending on the problems associated with their particular characteristics”, conclude the researchers.

Further information:

Title: Does Immigration Cause Crime? Evidence from Spain
Authors: César Alonso-Borrego, Nuno Garoupa and Pablo Vázquez
Source: American Law and Economics Review Volume: 14. Issue: 1. Pages: 165-191 DOI: 10.1093/aler/ahr019 Published: SPR 2012

Flickr: Olmo Calvo