Immigrant Incarceration 1900-1930: Development and Analysis of Historical Data

Awarded Scholars:
Carolyn Moehling, Rutgers University
Anne Morrison Piehl, Rutgers University
Project Date:
Nov 2009
Award Amount:
Project Programs:

Periods of increased immigration have historically been accompanied by claims that the newcomers disproportionately engage in criminal activity and contribute to decreasing levels of safety and well-being in the communities where they settle. Public anxiety about allegedly crime-prone immigrants and immigrant communities has resulted in the passage of restrictive immigration laws, as well as policies and practices that disadvantage the non-citizen foreign-born, including legal residents. Yet research finds that immigrants today generally have lower rates of crime than the native-born, that they are less likely to report criminal involvement, and are less likely to be incarcerated. 

To test the robustness of contemporary findings, economists Carolyn Moehling and Anne Piehl (both of Rutgers University) will use this award from the Foundation to examine the relationship between immigration and crime at two points in time in an earlier era: the first two decades of the twentieth century and 1917-1930. The first period had fewer restrictions on immigration and historically high rates of new arrivals, and the second period saw the number of new arrivals curtailed by quotas and immigrants faced deportation for criminal behavior. This latter period more closely resembles the current era, when new laws have expanded the set of crimes for which non-citizens can be deported and when the requirements for detention and deportation have been extended to legal residents.

Moehling and Piehl will assemble individual-level data from population and prison censuses for 1900 to 1930 for all male inmates in state correctional facilities in eight major immigrant destination states. For each prison they will enter data for all prisoners in that facility, and the resulting file will include detailed data on age, ethnicity, parentage, year of arrival for immigrants, and literacy. The investigators will then use modern statistical methods to conduct comparative analyses of the incarcerated and non-incarcerated populations during the thirty-year period, addressing such issues as: the effects of age distribution of the foreign-born and native-born on the probability of incarceration, how incarceration probabilities vary by country of origin, and whether or not predictors of incarceration vary by nativity. The investigators will also be able to examine how the immigrant incarceration experience varies during the period, in response to a changing legal, economic, and social environment.


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