Picture a city full of immigrants, mostly illegal, the majority dirt poor, with easy access to guns and a town just over the river torn apart by drug wars and brutal killings.
What do you think: Safe, or not safe?
The answer, of course, is safe. Very safe. In fact, the city I described—El Paso in
the south-western American state of New Mexico Texas and just over the border from a city that plays host to around 160o murders a years—is among the safest big cities in North America, and also the happiest.
For the better part of the last decade, only Honolulu has had a lower violent crime rate (El Paso slipped to third last year, behind New York). Men's Health magazine recently ranked El Paso the second "happiest" city in America, right after Laredo, Texas—another border town, where the Hispanic population is approaching 95 percent.
So how has this city of poor immigrants become such an anomaly? Actually, it may not be an anomaly at all. Many criminologists say El Paso isn't safe despite its high proportion of immigrants, it's safe because of them.
"If you want to find a safe city, first determine the size of the immigrant population," says Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Massachusetts. "If the immigrant community represents a large proportion of the population, you're likely in one of the country's safer cities. San Diego, Laredo, El Paso—these cities are teeming with immigrants, and they're some of the safest places in the country."
Take that xenophobes. And understand this is no accident.
What's happening with Latinos is true of most immigrant groups throughout U.S. history. "Overall, immigrants have a stake in this country, and they recognize it," Northeastern University's Levin says. "They're really an exceptional sort of American. They come here having left their family and friends back home. They come at some cost to themselves in terms of security and social relationships. They are extremely success-oriented, and adjust very well to the competitive circumstances in the United States." Economists Kristin Butcher and Anne Morrison Piehl argue that the very process of migration tends to select for people with a low potential for criminality.
And outside a few talkback hosts and their callers, it seems most Americans welcome them.
You don't see "Latinos Need Not Apply" or "No Mexicans" signs posted on public buildings the way you did with the Italians and the Irish, two groups who actually were disproportionately likely to turn to crime. The implication makes sense: An immigrant group's propensity for criminality may be partly determined by how they're received in their new country.
Which has lessons for Europe, famously poor at integrating new migrants*.
"Look at Arab-Americans in the Midwest, especially in the Detroit area," Levin says. "The U.S. and Canada have traditionally been very willing to welcome and integrate them. They're a success story, with high average incomes and very little crime. That's not the case in Europe. Countries like France and Germany are openly hostile to Arabs. They marginalize them. And they've seen waves of crime and rioting."
A welcoming melting pot with a confident culture. That’s just another thing of which Europe is running very short.
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* “Famously poor” does not however mean “completely disastrous.” News stories on rioting and crime make good headlines, and “good data on immigration and crime are hard to come by,” admit researchers, but suggest for a number of reasons the fact is “immigrants on the whole may not be more likely to commit crimes, but some immigrant groups seem more likely than others to be punished for crimes.”
[Hat tip Julian Pistorius]
UPDATE: Oops, corrected my mis-located geography! “El Paso is in Texas, not New Mexico. Right on the border, though!” (Thanks to that commenter.)