Definition: Violations of U.S. state and federal laws perpetrated by and on immigrants

Significance: 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 formof laws aimed at controlling entry or restricting economic opportunity, many immigrants also found themselves targets of various hate crimes, including looting, robbery, arson, and murder. At the same time, they often fell prey to criminal elements within their own ethnic groups. Local, state, and federal law-enforcement officials have often been unable—or unwilling—to deal with those committing crimes against law-abiding immigrants.

Crime Factors Among Immigrants

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 largenumbers 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 fromtheir 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.

Immigrant Experiences, 1820-1920

The first groups of immigrants to suffer systematic discrimination as criminal populations were the Irish and Germans, who began arriving on the East Coast in great numbers during the 1820’s. While many German immigrants moved westward and took up farming, the Irish tended to congregate in major East Coast cities. For example, new arrivals in New York settled in Lower Manhattan, which quickly became notorious for gangs that preyed on both residents and visitors. Law-enforcement officials often refused to act against Irish criminals when their victims were fellow Irish. There were, however, frequent arrests of Irish immigrants. At one point prior to the U.S. Civil War, the Irish made up nearly 60 percent of the inmates of New York City jails; however, most of them had been arrested for petty crimes such as public drunkenness.

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 Boston during the 1840’s and 1850’s, and the Chinese in the western United States after the railroads were completed during the 1860’s. The same circumstances existed in the East and South at the turn of the twentieth century, when eastern Europeans and sometimes Jews were targeted.

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 Chinese immigration that began during the 1850’s brought nearly twenty times the number of young males as it did females to the United States. These men worked in the gold fields and then in railroad construction. When not at work they were often in the gambling dens or houses of prostitution, and unscrupulous entrepreneurs (many of them fellow Chinese) took advantage of the situation by opening establishments where such activities could be pursued.

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 “Chinatowns” provided muchneeded security and economic opportunities, but they also fostered the growth of criminal activity. Organizations known as tongs that had originated in China as mutual-aid societies were imported to the United States and soon existed in nearly every American Chinatown. The tongs opened saloons, gambling houses, opium dens, and brothels, often smuggling from China young women, many of whom were abducted or enticed with false promises of opportunities in America. In response to what was perceived as a threat to public order, American citizens lobbied the U.S. Congress to take some action. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which established strict quotas that limited the entry of certain racial and ethnic groups and stopped most Chinese immigration.

A similar pattern emerged among Italian immigrants who came to America by the thousands beginning in the 1880’s. There was a common perception in America that most Italian immigrants were criminals. As they had done with the Irish decades earlier, many law-enforcement agencies took a hands-off approach to crimes committed by Italians on other Italian, thereby allowing what was actually only a small criminal element within that community to flourish. Only after crimes became too heinous or were committed outside Italian immigrant communities did city and state officials begin to pay serious attention. Just as happened in southern Italy and Sicily centuries earlier, “protective agencies” sprang up among Italian communities in America. Ironically, although these bodies were created to keep neighbors safe from outside harm, many of them turned to preying on law-abiding citizens. Even more ominously, they evolved from simple street gangs into one of the most notorious criminal organizations in American history: the Mafia.

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 Emergency Immigrant Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924 were both aimed at stemming the flow of immigrants from countries perceived to be sending known indigents and criminals to the United States.

Gangs and Organized Crime

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. Irish gangs roamed port cities such as New York City and Boston from the 1840’s through the 1870’s, while Chinese gangs plagued many western cities. Italian gangs and, to a lesser extent, Jewish gangs did the same in the East and South beginning in the 1880’s.

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 “organized crime” was different from simple gang activity in that it took on a businesslike structure wherein those who rose to the top of an organization could achieve a certain social status and often were able to distance themselves from their criminal ties and become respectable citizens in their communities. This was often done at the expense of the immigrant communities from which they sprang, however, as fellow members of the same ethnic groups were usually their first victims.

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 Mafia organizations sprang up, beginning in New Orleans during the 1870’s and appearing shortly thereafter in metropolises such as New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago, legitimate protection activities were soon transformed into extortion rackets. Mafia leaders organized prostitution rings and set up various forms of gambling operations—often bilking honest players through various schemes that allowed the Mafia to keep the bulk of the money wagered by bettors. Property damage, bodily harm, and even murder were common forms of retribution practiced against those who protested or attempted to bring in law enforcement to stop Mafia operations. Although systematic efforts by law enforcement to eradicate these criminal groups began as early as the 1890’s, relatively little progress was made over the ensuing century.

The Italian Mafia was not the only organized crime operation to prey on immigrant communities. A Jewish Mafia was operating as early as the 1890’s in New York, and soon spread to other cities, coexisting with Italian operations or sometimes vying with them for control of various neighborhoods. While the influence of these Mafia organizations waned as the twentieth century progressed and immigrant populations became absorbed into mainstream America, international criminal organizations such as South American drug cartels and Russian and eastern European Mafia-like groups began operating in the United States, often preying on immigrant communities in which drugs and contraband goods found willing buyers.

Trends After 1965

In 1965, the U.S. Congress passed a new Immigration and Nationality Act that radically reformed U.S. immigration and ushered in a new wave of criminal activity associated with immigrant populations. The 1965 law eliminated preferences for European immigrants and broadened opportunities for immigrants from Asia and Latin America. When these new groups began arriving in great numbers, however, the historical pattern of mistrust and blame directed at new immigrants was repeated. People coming from the East and from Central and South America were subjected to the same prejudices as European immigrants had endured decades earlier. The general public blamed increased crime in various localities on the influx of immigrants, even when statistics suggested these perceptions were wrong.

Some new immigrants did, however, become involved in serious criminal activity. Many of the Vietnamese immigrants who made their way to the United States during the 1970’s after the end of the Vietnam War became involved in a cycle of crime that caused serious rifts between them and members of the communities in which they settled. Many of the people who fled Vietnam after the war had little formal education but were hard workers willing to take unskilled jobs in order to survive in their adopted homeland. Many who settled along the Gulf coast took up fishing, a trade many had practiced inVietnam. The immigrants’ industrious work habits, coupled with their unfamiliarity with practices in the region, soon made them targets of a variety of hate crimes. Their boats were burned, their catches were looted, and their families were threatened. On the West Coast, the unwillingness of the established population to embrace Vietnamese immigrants, coupled with the lack of good jobs for immigrants with limited formal education, drove many young Vietnamese into gang life.

Suspected members of the Russian mob being escorted by Federal Bureau of Investigation agents after being arrested on extortion charges in 1995
Suspected members of the Russian mob being escorted by Federal Bureau of Investigation agents after being arrested on extortion charges in 1995. (AP/Wide World Photos)

Generational Factors and Gangs

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 andVietnamese 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 drug trafficking. During the 1970’s an elaborate network run by Central and South America drug cartels began operating in immigrant communities in the United States, typically making use of immigrants as drug runners and pushers. When the federal government began cracking down on this illegal trade during the 1980’s, a high percentage of persons arrested for drug violations were found to be illegal immigrants. As a result, federal, state, and local lawenforcement officials began targeting immigrant communities under the assumption that reducing their populations would decrease the numbers of persons involved in crime.

Operation Gilded Cage
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. (AP/Wide World Photos)

Legislative Responses

News stories sensationalizing violence associated with gangs and drug activity have fed stereotypes that immigrants were responsible for rising crime rates. Responding to public pressure, legislators have pushed for ever more stringent laws restricting immigration and for providing harsh penalties for immigrants convicted of crimes. One of the more curious statutes to affect the rise of crime among immigrants was the state of California’s Proposition 187, which was passed by voter referendum in 1994. Under the provisions of the law created by that initiative, undocumented immigrants were denied all public medical care except emergency treatment, and their children were denied educational benefits. Hospital and school system officials who violated the law were subject to criminal penalties. Additionally, falsifying documents or using false documents to establish legitimacy was made a felony offense. Although many of the provisions of Proposition 187 were later declared unconstitutional, the law’s passage provided further proof that the majority of American citizens were increasingly willing to stiffen criminal penalties for anyone entering the United States without proper documentation. Thanks to this attitude, immigrants could be regarded as felons simply by crossing the border without proper documentation.

In 1996, the federal Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act created harsher penalties for both illegal and legal immigrants. Legal immigrants could be arrested and deported for crimes committed as long as a decade earlier. Such crimes included not only traditional felonies such as murder, drug possession and use, or robbery, but also domestic violence and even drunk driving. Suddenly the entire immigrant population was placed under a cloud, as the general populace came to see all immigrants either as criminals or as potential criminals. Meanwhile, federal efforts to increase the size and scope of the Immigration and Naturalization Service led to increased detentions and arrests of both legal and illegal immigrants, further supporting perceptions among American citizens that recent immigrants posed a danger to the health and welfare of the society as a whole.

Laurence W. Mazzeno

Further Reading

  • 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. 

See also: Captive Thai workers; Chinese secret societies; Criminal immigrants; Ethnic enclaves; Godfather trilogy; Italian immigrants; Ku Klux Klan; Ponzi, Charles; Smuggling of immigrants; “Undesirable aliens.”

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