Do Migrant Farm Workers Cause Increased Crime?

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Crime is once again a major issue in the presidential election. Although less so in 2020, in 2016 crime related to immigration in particular was one of the primary themes of Donald Trump’s campaign. Many Americans presume that immigrants, especially illegal immigrants, commit crimes at higher rates than American citizens. A 2018 Grinnell College poll found that 30% of respondents thought that illegal immigrants committed violent crimes at higher rates, compared to 20% who thought lower. The 2000 General Social Survey found that 73% of respondents thought that it was “very likely” or “somewhat likely” that crime rates would increase as a result of increased immigration into the United States.

Whether this perception is true is another matter. Several studies have found that immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than US citizens, though this is difficult to show definitively, especially in the case of illegal immigrants because we don’t know how many there are in different parts of the country. However, we do know that many immigrants, legal and illegal, partake in seasonal farm work. 71% of seasonal farm laborers from 2000-2016 were born in Mexico. In a working paper with fellow ageconmt.com Diane Charlton (and Alex James of the University of Alaska) we analyze how criminal activity behaves in places that use lots of seasonal agricultural labor during the “peak” seasons.

Farms that use the most seasonal labor are primarily Fruit, Vegetable, and Horticultural (FVH) farms, which require substantial manual labor for picking during harvest season. We identify counties that experience seasonal employment spikes in these sectors and compare how criminal activity changes during these months compared to counties without significant seasonal labor. We find that crime rates (measured as count of crimes divided by total labor force) decrease for both property and violent crimes. However, we cannot measure exact crime rates because we don’t observe county population every month. But even the number of total crimes is unaffected, which is surprising given the additional population implied by an influx of seasonal laborers.

While these results are interesting, they are not exactly measuring whether immigrant farm workers commit crimes at lower rates than the permanent population, but rather how overall criminal activity is impacted by harvest season. It could be the case that the enhanced economic activity reduces crime during harvest season, even among non-farm workers. Indeed, we find that employment in non-agricultural sectors also increases in these counties, likely reflecting increased demand for labor in secondary agricultural sectors and the service sector. Still, the oft-expressed fears that influxes of foreign-born farm workers will cause spikes in crime appear to be misplaced.

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About Author

Brock Smith is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Economics at Montana State University. He received a PhD from UC-Davis in 2013 and spent three years as a Research Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Analysis of Resource Rich Economies. He mainly studies effects of oil and natural gas shocks in both an international and domestic US setting.

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