The story of immigration enforcement

In an award-winning paper, criminologist Aaron Chalfin examines the public safety implications of labor market-based immigration enforcement.

When Aaron Chalfin, assistant professor of criminology in the School of Arts & Sciences, began studying the impact on crime of the Legal Arizona Workers Act—an immigration enforcement measure enacted in 2008—he didn’t expect to find much. That’s because, despite public opinion to the contrary, “people who are undocumented don’t seem to be a big part of the crime problem in this country,” he explains.

What Chalfin learned, though, wasn’t insignificant. But it also wasn’t the story that opponents of immigration have been telling.

paperwork for citizenship and immigration with U.S. flag

Historically, immigration has been a hot-button issue in the U.S. Long before the current scrutiny over the U.S.’s southern border, policies like the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 regulated who could enter and who could stay in the country. Chalfin, whose research has examined the implications of immigration enforcement for public safety, says that more recent trends in the field emphasize policies like the Department of Homeland Security’s “Secure Communities” program, which enlists local law enforcement to identify undocumented immigrants currently living within the country’s interior. The Legal Arizona Workers Act, which requires all employers in Arizona to establish the identity and work eligibility of new hires through the federal E-Verify system, reflects another measure for reducing undocumented immigration—legislation that controls who can participate in the U.S. labor market. The law allows the state to suspend or revoke the business licenses of employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers.

With one of the largest plausibly undocumented populations in the country, Arizona has enacted several laws to address immigration. When the Legal Arizona Workers Act went into effect, it became the toughest state immigration enforcement measure to date. Its impact on the state’s demographics became clear within a year, Chalfin says, noting that the Mexican immigrant population, in particular, decreased by as much as 20 percent.

Chalfin and Monica Deza of CUNY, Hunter College set out to determine what implications, if any, the act and labor market immigration enforcement in general had for crime. Chalfin and Deza published their findings in the article, “Immigration Enforcement, Crime, and Demography: Evidence from the Legal Arizona Workers Act,” which received the 2021 Best Paper Award for Earlier-Career Scholars from the journal Criminology and Public Policy.

This story is by Duyen Nguyen. Read more at OMNIA