A group of Central American refugees and asylum seekers, led by the non-profit humanitarian organization Pueblos Sin Fronteras (People Without Borders), ride ‘The Beast’ freight train in Matias Romero, Oaxaca state, Mexico. (Photographer: Jordi Ruiz Cirera/Bloomberg)

Busting the Refugee-Crime Connection

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Does admitting refugees to the U.S. lead to increased crime? If you follow certain sources of news and information these days, you might think so.  Indeed, concern about refugee-driven crime figures front-and-center in the narrative woven by some of the country’s most influential pundits and leaders — including President Donald Trump, who on Jun. 19, 2018, tweeted:

But that’s not what the data say. Trump got the German statistic essentially backward — there, crime actually went down by 10 percent amid an influx of immigrants, many seeking refuge from conflicts in the Middle East.

And a new paper by Daniel Masterson and Vasil Yasenov of Stanford University‘s Immigration Policy Lab gives us new U.S. evidence from what is perhaps an unlikely source: the Trump administration’s early-2017 refugee ban.

Figuring out the relationship between refugees and crime is complicated because resettlement isn’t random. Typically, refugees are assigned to live in areas with relatively low populations — and some of those areas have fewer people precisely because of high crime rates. And on the other hand, resettlement agencies might make a point of sending refugees to safer, low-crime areas. In either case, whatever the statistical association between the presence of refugees and crime — in the first case a positive correlation, and in the second case a negative one — the relationship would be spurious.

To really figure out what effect, if any, refugees are having on crime levels, we would need what economists call a natural experiment — a spontaneous change in refugee flows that is uncorrelated with local crime trends. Trump gave us one: On Jan. 27, 2017, he issued an executive order unilaterally suspending all refugee admissions for 120 days, and lowering caps on refugee admission thereafter.

Masterson and Yasenov show that Trump’s executive order did indeed reduce refugee resettlement substantially. Moreover, the impact of the change varied across local areas, with counties that had previously hosted more refugees seeing larger decreases. This meant that Masterson and Yasenov could measure how reducing refugee admission affected crime by comparing the counties that saw large decreases in refugee inflows to those that had little or no change.

So what happened to crime when the refugees were kept out? Precisely nothing. Crime trends in counties that experienced large drops in refugee arrivals were statistically indistinguishable from crime trends elsewhere. The reduction in refugee resettlement had, in the authors’ words, “no discernible impact on crime rates.” (If anything, the regression coefficients are slightly positive — the counties with larger decreases in refugee arrival had slightly larger increases in crime than other counties did.)

To many, this won’t come as a surprise. The claim that refugees are disproportionately responsible for crime has always been shaky.  Even so, it’s good to have strong evidence.

And there’s a bit of irony in the fact that Trump’s refugee ban served as a perfect statistical experiment to prove that one of its alleged motivations — large-scale refugee-driven crime in the U.S. — was erroneous.

But this is definitely the type of real-world experiment we’d be better off if science never got to see. (Unfortunately, the economists who study trade, monetary policy and border walls can probably think of others.)

In any event, from what we can tell from the research at this point, refugees don’t appear to increase crime. So concern about crime certainly shouldn’t stop us from raising resettlement back to its pre-ban levels.

There are similar beliefs in the U.K.

Quite to the contrary, there’s solid empirical evidence to suggest that far from being a burden on the state, on average, refugees turn out to be a net positive for the tax base in the long run.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Scott Duke Kominers is the MBA Class of 1960 Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, and a faculty affiliate of the Harvard Department of Economics. Previously, he was a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows and the inaugural research scholar at the Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics at the University of Chicago.

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