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SPA Professor Refutes Link Between Immigration Status and School Violence

Data shows no or negative association, reshaping the conversation about resource allocation in schools

As the U.S. immigrant population has grown, particularly second and third generations, so too has long-held white attitudes about the relationship between immigration and crime. To address this supposed link, SPA Assistant Professor Janice Iwama has just published “Context of Reception and School Violence: Exploring the Nexus of Immigration, Race/ Ethnicity, Place, and School Crime,” co-authored by Anthony Peguero, Yasmiyn Irizarry, Jessica L. Dunning-Lozano, Jun Sung Hong, and Sanna King, in the January 21, 2021 edition of Sociology of Race and Ethnicity.

“Our study sought to understand whether immigrants are associated specifically with increases in crime,” said Iwama, “and whether the location of the public schools and how these children are received by the community has any impact on those rates of crime.”

The authors used national-level data on U.S. public schools from the National Center for Education Services to analyze numbers of first-generation children of immigrants across the U.S. and compare that to levels of violence at their school. As the immigrant population has spread outward from gateway cities to more rural and suburban areas, Iwama decided to expand the survey to include these areas, to better understand the context of these environments.

“We found either no or negative associations between immigrant children and crimes, looking at violent, property, and substance abuse,” even when controlling for race, ethnicity, place, and socioeconomic level. The negative association refers to the relationship between immigrants and violent crime.

By contrasting the general rhetoric stating that immigrants lead to higher rates of crime, these findings should help reshape national prejudice. American attitudes towards immigrants date back to the early 20th century when fears of different cultures and traditions led many to relate them to social ills. Iwama argues that, though many come from impoverished backgrounds, they tend to work hard to achieve financial prosperity unavailable in their home countries, the so-called “American dream.”

“An immigrant comes into this country seeking to assimilate, to become more American, by learning the language, learning the culture, and going to the schools,” she said. “However, theorists [point to] a downward assimilation: many immigrants assimilate, but in a downward trajectory. First- and second-generation immigrants do really well in the United States. When you get to third-generation children, that reflect more American values, they become more likely to end up in jail.”
The study’s findings also introduce significant policy implications that dovetail with the national conversations about law enforcement and COVID-related resource allocation. “When thinking about how best to assist the schools,” said Iwama, “it's not by bringing in a school-to-prison pipeline or bringing in more law enforcement, . . . but by providing them with other resources that could better assimilate the students.”

These resources must target language and socioeconomic barriers to education and assimilation, but must also account for and protect against existing, but decidedly American, cultural elements.

“Why do we put police officers in schools?” she asked. ”We put them mostly in schools that tend to be mostly black and Latinx, in very low-income communities, because we believe that they're going to be more prone to violence. Why are we spending so much money in schools, trying to control this violence when there is no violence, rather than trying to provide immigrants with better resources in order to improve themselves?”