Arrival of the Fittest: Canada’s crime rate is dropping as immigration increases. Is there a connection?
May 12, 2011
LATE LAST SUMMER, the MV Sun Sea, a small Thai cargo ship, entered Canadian waters off the British Columbia coast, where it was intercepted by the navy and the RCMP. Crowded on board were 492 Tamils, including women and children. The vessel’s arrival was not unexpected; in fact, the government had been monitoring its journey for months and had intelligence that it was smuggling refugees from Sri Lanka. Canada has been a popular destination for people fleeing the ravages of the twenty-six-year civil war and a 2004 tsunami: there are now 20,000 Sri Lankans here, and more coming all the time.
A few days before the Sun Sea reached the coast, public safety minister Vic Toews was in Toronto giving a luncheon speech on national security to the Economic Club of Canada and announced, “I can assure you that we are concerned about who is on that ship and why they might be coming to Canada.” He was referring to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, known as the Tamil Tigers, which has been banned in Canada as a terrorist organization. The previous year, when a rusty ship called the Ocean Lady carrying seventy-six Tamil men arrived off the coast of Vancouver Island, the government arrested the passengers and held them for months, alleging that a third of them were Tamil Tigers sent to infiltrate Canada and set up operations here. (No evidence was ever found to support that claim, and they’ve since been released. All are pursuing refugee claims.)
That the point person was Toews, and not Jason Kenney, the minister of citizenship, immigration, and multiculturalism, was telling. It framed the Sun Sea situation as a potential danger to the public, and prompted a swift response. The passengers were put into detention (nearly sixty of them remain there, and in March two were ordered to be deported because of ties to the Tigers). The government also introduced Bill C-49, which would allow officials to detain smuggled migrants for one year, and bar them from applying for permanent residence and sponsoring family members for five years.
The public was unsympathetic. In a column for the Sun chain of newspapers, conservative author Ezra Levant referred to the refugees as “gatecrashers” who were exploiting the country’s largesse. “Taxpaying, law-abiding Canadian citizens don’t even get free dental care, in case you’d forgotten,” he wrote. Meanwhile, an Angus Reid poll revealed that 46 percent of Canadians believed immigration was having a negative effect on the country. When asked specifically about the Tamil refugees, 50 percent wanted to deport them back to Sri Lanka.
This may seem like a surprising turn for a country that is particularly supportive of diversity. After all, we’re an officially bilingual nation of immigrants; 20 percent of us are foreign born, and only aboriginal people, who make up a small fraction of the population, can legitimately claim to be from here. Last year, Canada had its highest rate of immigration in over fifty years, with more than 280,000 people being granted permanent resident status. And according to a recent international survey, Canada is one of the best nations in the world at integrating immigrants, scoring high marks for educational and job opportunities, as well as for anti-discrimination and equality policies.
Yet the suspicions about the Tamils echo previous spasms of anti-immigrant animus, like the Chinese head tax and the internment of Germans, Austro-Hungarians, Turks, Bulgarians, and Japanese Canadians during the two world wars. And the Tamils’ arrival by boat recalls two other particularly ugly moments in this history: in 1914, a Japanese freighter carrying some 400 passengers, mainly Sikhs from India, landed in Vancouver but was denied permission to enter Canada. The ship returned to India, where twenty passengers were killed after they disembarked. Twenty-five years later, the MS St. Louis, carrying over 900 Jews fleeing the Nazis, was turned away by Canada, the US, and Cuba. Back in Europe, nearly a third of those passengers would die in the Holocaust.
In times of social upheaval and economic hardship, immigrants are a convenient scapegoat, accused of bringing with them an element of deviance and criminality: they upset the social order, the line goes, steal our jobs and our property, and ruin our neighbourhoods. This would seem to be one of those times. In the US, anti-immigrant rhetoric has spawned nutty excesses, like the Minutemen militia group that is building a fence along the Mexican border, and the recent, McCarthy-esque congressional hearings on the “radicalization” of American Muslims. In Canada, there has been a general, albeit less extreme, souring toward immigrants, as well. In 2007, a Léger poll determined that one-third of Quebecers believed that their society was threatened by non-Christian newcomers, and nearly 60 percent wanted immigrants to follow a “code of conduct” akin to the ham-fisted code de vie infamously mandated by the village of Hérouxville. A year after that, in Calgary, MP Lee Richardson told a reporter that people who have grown up in a different culture “don’t have the same respect for authority or people’s person or property… Talk to the police. Look at who is committing these crimes. They’re not the kid who grew up next door.” Richardson later retracted his comments, but they appear to reflect the popular view. An international survey of public attitudes about immigration published in 2009 found that while Canadians have positive feelings overall about immigrants, more than half blame illegal migrants for driving up crime.
What few have bothered to ask is whether there’s any merit to this belief. There have certainly been signs that they should. In Arizona, where a new law makes the failure to carry immigration documents a crime and gives the police broad powers to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally — an infraction sometimes called “walking while Hispanic” — crime levels have actually dropped with the concurrent influx of Mexicans. In fact, the violence of Mexico’s drug war doesn’t seem to have travelled north with immigrants: crime rates in US towns along the country’s 3,200-kilometre southern border are down. In Canada, an overall drop in crime has paralleled the upsurge in non-European immigration since Pierre Trudeau championed multiculturalism in the 1970s. Half of Toronto’s population now consists of those born outside Canada; notably, the city’s crime rate has dropped by 50 percent since 1991, and is significantly lower than that of the country as a whole. Could it be that immigrants are making us all safer?
WHEN THE VIOLENT CRIME rate in the US began to fall, sharply and consistently, in the 1990s, a handful of criminologists and sociologists there started investigating a possible connection to the rising tide of immigration. Two early studies that tracked crime in dozens of metropolitan areas discovered that cities with the highest increase in immigration also had the largest decrease in violent crime; there was possibly a causal relationship, but it wasn’t clear what it was. One of the first researchers to begin to connect the dots was Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson.
About a decade ago, he and his colleagues looked at violent acts committed over an eight-year period by some 3,000 men and women in 180 neighbourhoods in Chicago, a diverse city with a considerable population of Hispanic immigrants. What they found was that Mexican Americans were far less likely to be violent than African Americans or whites. When all variables were accounted for it became clear that this was in large part because a quarter of the subjects were born outside the US and more than half lived in communities where the majority of residents were also of Mexican heritage. Overall, first generation immigrants of any background were 45 percent less likely to commit violent acts than third generation Americans, and living in a neighbourhood with a large concentration of immigrants of any nationality was associated with lower levels of violence. In a nutshell, immigration protected these Chicago communities against violent behaviour.
While Canada has experienced both a similar drop in crime rates and an escalation in immigration, less research has been conducted here on the subject. In a serendipitous turn of events, however, a University of Toronto study initiated more than thirty years ago provides some of the most convincing evidence to support the theory that more immigration equals less crime. In 1976, John Hagan, now a professor of sociology and law at both U of T and Northwestern University in Chicago, surveyed a group of 835 teenagers at four high schools in a region west of Toronto, near Pearson International Airport. (The community has never been named, to protect residents’ anonymity.) He asked them about their families, their attitudes toward education, what they did when they hung out with their friends, and the kind of trouble they got into. Did they smoke pot? Get into fights? Ever steal a car and take it for a joyride?
At the time, Hagan, who has since become one of the most prominent experts on immigration and crime, wasn’t looking into the issue of immigration at all. His interest was in youth delinquency, and such school-based studies were dominant during this period. The site he chose for his research, however, was about to undergo a radical demographic transformation. When his U of T colleagues Ronit Dinovitzer, a professor of sociology and law, and Ron Levi, a professor of criminology, returned in 1999 to repeat the survey, the community had become what they call “a global edge city” — taking the name from Joel Garreau’s groundbreaking 1991 book, Edge City, about emerging suburban economic power centres — with a high proportion of visible minorities, mainly South Asian, black, Filipino, and Chinese. Of Dinovitzer and Levi’s 900 respondents, a full 66 percent were from immigrant, non-European backgrounds (up from 10 percent in the original group), and it was upon seeing this diversity that the researchers realized they had more than just a study on youth delinquency; they had ample evidence to examine the relationship between immigration and crime…