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II. Why Is Research on Latinos Important?
III. Historical Background
IV. Latino/Immigrant Neighborhood Disadvantage and Police Research
V. Recommendations for Future Research
The scarcity of research on Latinos and crime, citizens and noncitizens alike, is one of the most curious shortcomings in the development of race/ethnicity and social science scholarship. This oversight is interesting, because the 1931 Wickersham Commission report focused on police treatment of Mexican immigrants. Moreover, early research on Latinos and police by Julian Samora (1971) includes overlooked studies on Border Patrol mistreatment of noncitizens or illegal aliens and state police abuse of persons of Mexican origin in Texas. The contentious relationship between ethnic minorities and urban police departments during World War II was also highlighted by the “zoot-suit hysteria” and police misconduct in the 1940s, when the singling out of Latinos by various facets of the criminal justice system laid the foundation for protracted animosity between the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and the city’s Mexican-origin community (Martínez, 2002). In fact, Edward Escobar (1999) contended that, even in the absence of solid data on this topic, the LAPD and general community stereotyped Mexican-origin youth as inherently delinquent or criminal aliens for the last half of the 20th century.
Even though early research on immigrants and the police exists, contemporary research on Latino perception of local police, U.S. citizen and noncitizen encounters with federal police agents (i.e., Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents), or city police by residents of heavily immigrant communities across the United States is scarce. Scholars have understandably directed attention to black and white attitudinal differences toward the police and documented the perception and prevalence of police misconduct in some African American areas, in particular extremely poor communities, where aggressive police strategies are concentrated. Still, researchers interested in examining racial and ethnic variations in experiences with the police and other criminal justice agencies should extend attention to Latinos, because they are the largest immigrant group in the United States; also, almost one third are unauthorized, or illegal, making them one of the largest noncitizen groups in the nation.
This failure to conduct research is even more apparent when one considers that over the last two decades, social scientists have argued that not only is the Latino experience quite different from that of non-Latino whites and blacks but that distinctions also exist among Latino subgroups and gender. In addition to immigration and legality status, these include variations in terms of historical, cultural, political, demographic, economic, and religious patterns. Although a comprehensive discussion of these differences across the social sciences disciplines is beyond the scope of this research paper, it is important to recall that ethnic and immigrant groups require attention by criminologists. More important, a historical foundation on Latinos and crime exists, and that starting place should be used to inform contemporary studies while ensuring that the incorporation of Latino citizens and noncitizens is a routine development in criminological research.
The purpose of this research paper, then, is to remind readers that noncitizens, especially Latinos and other immigrant group members, usually reside in economically disadvantaged communities. Sampson and Bartusch (1998) noted that legal cynicism and dissatisfaction with police were both intertwined with levels of neighborhood disadvantage, an effect that trumped racial differences in attitudes toward the police, even after controlling for neighborhood violent crime rates. Moreover, ecological characteristics of policing also include the use of physical and deadly force at the city level, officer misconduct in police precincts, and slower response times in communities, highlighting research that attitudes toward the police may be a function of neighborhood context. These actions hit young black males harder than others, but the impact on Latino youths is an open issue, as is the impact of recent immigration and the role of immigrant concentration in shaping police encounters. These issues potentially appear to construct a different story with respect to Latinos, violence, and the police.
This research paper closes with suggestions for future research. U.S. society is now composed of multiethnic populations, and the time has come to routinely examine Latinos in police research as well as differences within citizenship status groups, including naturalized citizens, legal residents, and unauthorized migrants. Pioneering research, together with early immigration and crime studies, includes issues relevant to Latinos and the police. Before addressing what we do and do not know about Latinos and police, the consequences of ignoring the Latino population is emphasized.
II. Why Is Research on Latinos Important?
The need to transcend the black–white paradigm of U.S. criminological research is obvious. Latinos comprise both native-born (60%) and foreign-born (40%) individuals, making them a very diverse group in terms of historical background, their manner of reception, and their year of entry into the United States. This last factor is important to acknowledge, because since 1960, the Latino population has experienced substantial growth due to rapid migration from Latin American countries and the Caribbean, along with high levels of fertility. Latinos are now the largest racial/ethnic minority group in the United States, meaning that the nation is as racially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse as it was at the turn of the 20th century, and the Latino population will likely continue to grow in the near future. Also, according to the U.S. census, the population of immigrants who are eligible for naturalization was 8.5 million in 2005; of these, more than one third, or nearly 3 million, were Mexican-origin Latinos (Rodriguez, Saenz, & Menjivar, 2008). Thus, not only are Latinos of Mexican origin are less likely to become U.S. citizens, but also the number of naturalized citizens from Mexico rose by 144% from 1995 to 2005—the sharpest increase among immigrants from any major country.
This growth has implications for the United States. Stereotypes regarding the Latino population proliferates in public discourse in the United States, fueled by media reports and perpetuated by some politicians. Most of these stereotypes go unchallenged even while they contribute to the notion that Latino immigrants are a dangerous threat to the nation. According to Leo Chavez (2008), these stereotypes include that Latinos are uneducated peasants, drug dealers, on welfare, and prone to commit crime. Moreover, new policy mandates for tightening the border and singling out illegal immigrants or criminal aliens, who are primarily of Mexican origin, are encouraged by politicians and commentators for the sake of enhancing national security. These mandates include the deployment of the National Guard, the building of a fence at the border between Mexico and the United States, and the labeling of undocumented immigrants as criminal aliens. Immigration policy now reflects national concern about local crime even though there is little systematic research linking these topics.
The failure to conduct research in this area also means that our understanding of this group, relative to whites and blacks, will be underdeveloped. This change requires researchers to consider whether Latinos are exposed to police tactics in a manner similar to black or white residents. If the groups are treated similarly, does immigration or legality status shape the manner in which Latinos are treated by the criminal justice system? As noted earlier, undocumented Latinos are now being targeted by local and federal police agencies, singled out from others in disadvantaged communities, which sets the stage for potential conflict between police and residents. Much like the neighborhoods studied by pioneering researchers in 1931, these activities are concentrated in economically disadvantaged communities, reminding us that economic conditions shape crime, violence, and perhaps police reactions to residents in some poor neighborhoods. However, the outcomes of criminal justice tactics are underexamined for Latinos, and many questions about Latinos and reactions to the police remain unanswered.
For example, although much of the Latino growth is in traditional settlement areas in the southwestern United State, there is substantial movement to places that are new Latino destinations or places where few Latinos resided in previous decades. Havidan Rodriguez and colleagues (Rodriguez, Saenz, & Menjivar, 2008) noted that the emergence of anti-immigrant laws or ordinances have proliferated in these new destination points, aimed at preventing “illegals” from securing housing, punishing business owners, and allowing local police to search for “illegals” or to ask about legality status, an issue typically in the federal domain. Take, for example, the village of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, which, according to the 2000 census, has a population of approximately 23,000 residents, about 5% of whom were Hispanic/Latino (Martinez, 2002). In 2006, local officials passed the Illegal Immigration Relief Act, a measure that would have resulted in racial profiling, discrimination, and denial of benefits to legal immigrants. This ordinance imposed fines of up to $1,000 to landlords who rented to “illegal” immigrants, denied business permits to corporations who employed undocumented immigrants, and made English the official language of the village. Latinos bore the brunt of the latest anti-immigrant hysteria in Hazleton and other places that implemented similar restrictions. Thus, the consequences of anti-immigrant/ Latino initiatives are that all Latinos, legality of citizenship status aside, are singled out by politicians and the media and are presumed to be in the country illegally.
It is important to note that not only is the composition of the Latino population (e.g., Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Salvadoran, Dominican) unlike that of most other racial and ethnic groups but also that the Latino population differs from earlier immigrants. The Latino population is growing and is estimated to represent about one quarter of the U.S. population by 2030 (Chavez, 2008). Although they are still concentrated in the southwestern states, Latinos are also drawn to other regions of the country, and they work in diverse sectors of the economy. Last, they are connected to their home countries, and many send money back to their country of birth. Remittances or money sent from immigrants in the United States is an important source of revenue for many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. A decline in this revenue is ominous and shapes interactions with others left behind as well as Latino immigrants’ absorption into U.S. society. It also potentially creates more poverty in the home country.
III. Historical Background
This research paper is a reminder that early research on Latinos/immigrants has not adequately informed contemporary criminal justice studies. F. Arturo Rosales (1999) contributed to the nascent body of research on Latino crime and policing and made an important contribution toward our understanding of early-1900s immigration trends. This included how Mexican immigrants responded to the U.S. criminal justice system and to crime and violence within that system as well as immigrants’ reaction to non-Latino white hostility, which emerged during the era of massive Mexican immigration in the 1890s to 1930s. In other words, early border problems, such as the smuggling of liquor, drugs, and illegal immigrants, persist in contemporary society, as do concerns about an emerging “Mexican problem”—a stereotype that assumes an innate propensity to crime in newcomers who hail from south of the Rio Grande. This stereotype is still reflected in contemporary society by politicians and the media and now targets illegal immigrants, a demographic group most likely to include persons of Mexican origin.
Regarding policing, some scholars contend that immigrant Mexicans experienced the negative presence of the police system as soon as they landed on the U.S. portion of the border. For example, drawing on historical data, including the 1931 Wickersham Commission Report on Crime and the Foreign Born, early researcher Paul Warnshuis (1931) noted that many Mexican immigrants were disproportionately arrested for disorderly conduct, a “color-less charge” used to “keep them in check,” and that “indiscriminate dragnets and brutal arrest tactics” were routine in Latino communities. These activities were undoubtedly linked to the widespread stereotype that Mexicans were inclined toward criminality. Warnshius also quoted a Chicago police sergeant stating that “You know, Indian and Negro blood does not mix very well. That is the trouble with the Mexican; he has too much Negro blood” (p. 39), a stereotype that persists to this day.
In fact, the notion that Mexican Americans were “born criminals” has not only endured, but also, as Edward Escobar (1999) documented, eventually contributed to national concern about this group, culminating in harsh measures singling out Mexican youth and young adults. By 1943, many residents of the Los Angeles barrios believed that the LAPD regularly violated the rights of Mexican Americans and that police misconduct in the Latino community was routine. In one nationally publicized incident, between June 3 and June 10, 1943, white military servicemen, civilians, and policemen attacked Mexican American youth dressed in the distinctive zoot suits (suits with wide shoulders, thigh-length jackets, and tapered pants). Many were assaulted, shaved, and left naked in the Los Angeles streets. During the riot, LAPD officers allowed servicemen to beat and strip the zoot suiters, usually arresting the Mexican American youth for disturbing the peace. Police officers arrested only a handful of servicemen but jailed more than 600 Mexican Americans. With the police watching, servicemen entered bars, theaters, dance halls, restaurants, and even private homes in search of victims. By the end of the rioting, servicemen were targeting all Mexican Americans and even some African Americans. It is clear that, for some Latinos, hostility and animosity probably defined the relationship between the Latino community and the LAPD even long after the end of World War II.
The extent of this enmity, however, was largely ignored by criminology researchers as scholars in the United States directed their attention to race and crime for several decades, ignoring Latinos. This is unfortunate, because a research foundation existed that could be built upon to inform current research, including learning more from the well-documented police mistreatment of Mexican immigrants in the early half of the century. As early as 1919, the Texas Rangers, a state police force, were involved in “murder; intimidation of citizens; threats against the lives of others; torture and brutality; flogging, horsewhipping, pistol whipping, and mistreatment of suspected persons; incompetency; and disregard for the law” (Gamio, 1971). The Texas Rangers were also routinely engaged as strike-breakers and took an active role in protecting employers’ interests. They interfered with the peaceful farm workers’ strike of 1966–1967 and arrested persons without cause.
Julian Samora (1971) wrote that the Border Patrol regularly restricted or relaxed the movement of illegal Mexican aliens according to business cycles in the agriculture industry. The relaxation of immigrant policy, border-crossing enforcement, and the employment of “illegals” were linked to ebbs and flows in the U.S. border economy. When crops needed to be harvested, the Border Patrol participated in getting workers into the field. In contrast, when crop season ended and the workers were no longer needed, the number of apprehensions and deportations spiked. Thus, the periodic roundup of “illegals” was linked to agriculture industry policy and law enforcement practices.
Samora (1971) recognized that routine Border Patrol operations were shaped by concerted efforts to thwart “invasions of illegals” crossing the U.S.–Mexican border. Periodic moral panics created concern about the “growing number of Mexican aliens,” or a financial recession directed attention to the undocumented workers. There was also anxiety about perceived high levels of crime at the border and the potential of disease-ridden “aliens” crossing the border into the United States. During periods of heightened fear, Border Patrol officers saturated entry points; in 1952, they deported more than 500,000 undocumented Mexicans when the decision was made to close the border. As we now know, over time, the Border Patrol redirected its attention elsewhere, and the number of deportees dropped throughout the late 1950s and 1960s.
Thus, racial or ethnic conflict existed for some time in the southwestern United States. Present researchers should draw on work produced by early scholars. The hostile relationship between the Chicano/Latino community and the LAPD lingered for most of the 20th century, and the long-simmering tension from the LAPD zoot suit riot in 1942 can inform current scholars concerned with urban minority group crime, in particular those interested in the causes of urban riots and how police exacerbate racial–ethnic tensions, such as in the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The role that border police play in tightening up enforcement of immigration policy also is not new. The next section draws from a body of ecological research on race and crime and closes with suggestions for future studies.
IV. Latino/Immigrant Neighborhood Disadvantage and Police Research
Much of the recent research on race/ethnicity and crime has been conducted at the aggregate level, on the basis of official data reported to the police. This literature does not ponder individual variations in propensity to engage in criminal offending but instead considers variations in violent crime victimization or offending across places such as metropolitan areas or cities. Ecological research on crime and violence also draws attention to the relationship between race/ethnicity and place, whether that is the city, metropolitan, or community level, and proposes that racial disparities are linked to the varying social contexts in which population groups exist. A consistent finding in this literature is that violent crime rates, both offending and victimization, are higher in places with greater proportions of blacks or African Americans, and this finding persists over time. Most of these studies use homicide or violent crime rates or counts of racial/ethnic specific violence as the dependent variable, because homicides are routinely detected and reported to the police, but even these studies typically focus on black or white crime differences.
These aggregate-level studies have been valuable because they demonstrate the need to consider racial disparities in crime and in some cases encourage scholars to push conceptions of race and crime to include Latino composition in crime studies. Indeed, researchers have recently evaluated whether the neighborhood conditions relevant to black and white violence also apply to Latinos. At the forefront of recent ecological analyses of Latino violence is a series of articles based in the city of Miami, Florida, a heavily impoverished multiethnic city with large immigrant Latino and foreign-born black populations and high-profile inner-city communities (Peterson & Krivo, 2005). Latino-specific homicides were analyzed either alone or in comparison with models for native-born blacks and whites, and sometimes immigrant Haitians, Jamaicans, or Latino groups, such as the Mariel Cubans. All of these are racial/ethnic/immigrant groups that reside in high-crime and disadvantaged communities in need of police services, and that regularly encounter police officers, but the extent of positive or negative police–citizen interactions is not clear. Moreover, these Miami studies also noted that Latinos usually follow a pattern similar to that among blacks and whites in terms of the all-encompassing effect of concentrated disadvantage or heightened economic problems even though some predictors of Latino homicide are, to some extent, distinct. Thus, the basic linkages among disadvantage and homicide hold for African Americans, Haitians, and Latinos in the city of Miami, even in areas that are dominated by immigrants. This suggests that a need exists to further examine the interactions between police and residents and to explore levels of police treatment because, by extension, the study of Latinos and police encounters at the community level could vary from studies of blacks or whites.
This body of work is important because there is a strong relationship among economic disadvantage, affluence, and violent crime, and this connection has received a great deal of attention given the racial–ethnic differences in the strength of the association between crime and socioeconomic context at the community level. To a large extent, this notion is rooted in Robert Sampson’s and William J. Wilson’s (1995) claim that the “sources of violent crime appear to be remarkably invariant across race and rooted instead in the structural differences across communities, cities, and states in economic and family organization” (p. 41), which helps explain the racial–ethnic differences in violence. The premise of this claim is that community-level patterns of racial inequality give rise to the social isolation and ecological concentration of the truly disadvantaged, which in turn leads to structural barriers and cultural adaptations that undermine social organization and in turn shapes crime. Therefore, race is not a cause of violence but rather a marker deriving from a set of social contexts reflecting racial disparity in U.S. society. This has become known as the racial invariance thesis of the fundamental causes of violent crime. Still, the racial invariance thesis has rarely been applied to ethnicity, crime, and policing. Although other conceptual or theoretical overviews on Latino crime and delinquency exist, attention is directed to macrolevel approaches, because this is where the bulk of Latino violence research is located.
The study of neighborhood disadvantage and violence has generated similar findings for blacks and Latinos in the border cities of San Diego, California, and El Paso, Texas. Other researchers have compared and contrasted the characteristics of black, white, and Latino homicides in Chicago; Houston, Texas; and Los Angeles or have controlled for social and economic determinants of crime thought to shape racial–ethnic disparities across neighborhoods (Peterson & Krivo, 2005). None have found evidence that more immigration means more homicides in a given area. For the most part, these studies also have led to the conclusion that the “disadvantage link” to homicide is similar for African Americans and Latinos.
Therefore, the impact of disadvantage holds in the case of Latinos on the border and might be extended to ethnic variations in terms of community-level causes of violence. By extension, it also appears that residents of heavily Mexican-origin communities might have enhanced contact with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents concentrated on or around the Mexican border who are increasingly engaged in aggressive crime control strategies designed to stop the movement of undocumented workers into the United States. Much like the case of young African American males, perceptions of unfair and disrespectful treatment by law enforcement authorities, hand in hand with increased targeting by police in search of immigration violations and undocumented workers to deport, might influence Latino males’ perception of police. As immigration crackdowns increase, young Latino adults are singled out regardless of citizenship status, which shapes their views of police and increases their distrust and negative interactions with criminal justice officials. The aggressive targeting by police typically occurs in extremely poor Latino communities and potentially strains relationships with community members and law enforcement officials.
This research discussed in this section supports the notion that structural disadvantage matters for violence across racial, ethnic, and immigrant groups, and it should also matter for police treatment. However, research on neighborhood contexts and police encounters remains in short supply for Latinos. In short, future research should pay closer attention to potential variations across and within groups of various immigration status, ethnic variations, and perceptions of the police at the neighborhood level.
V. Recommendations for Future Research
A number of other important questions should be addressed in the future. For example, how does economic disadvantage operate to produce violence within and across Latino groups with varying levels of citizenship status but in similar communities? Also, is citizenship shaping ethnic differences in dissatisfaction with the police? Moreover, Latinos reside in areas with high levels of disadvantage, but many Latino communities have high levels of labor market attachment, even though typically it might mean employment in menial jobs. What happens when law enforcement officials target specific areas populated by working poor Latinos with aggressive policing tactics designed to subdue immigration policy violations but not necessarily crime? Will native-born Latinos be content with these tactics when pulled off the streets in these sweeps along with documented and undocumented immigrants?
It is not surprising that Latinos disapprove of recent stepped-up immigration enforcement. In a recent survey by the Pew Hispanic Center, Latinos reported wholeheartedly disapproving of a variety of enforcement measures (Menjivar & Bejarno, 2004). More than 80% said that immigration enforcement should be left mainly to the federal authorities instead of the local police; approximately 76% disapproved of workplace raids, 73% disapproved of the criminal prosecution of undocumented immigrants, and 70% disapproved of the criminal prosecution of employers who hire undocumented immigrants. Most Latinos agreed that there has been an increase in the past year in immigration enforcement actions targeted at undocumented immigrants, and more than one third of surveyed Latinos said there has been an increase in anti-immigrant sentiment. A majority of Latinos also reported worrying about deportation.
The potential rise of racial profiling among Latinos is an important topic to consider. In the Pew survey nearly 1 in 10 Latinos, both native and foreign born, reported that in the past year the police or other authorities had stopped them and asked about their immigration status. Thus, will Latino profiling increase hand in hand with police strategies disseminated in reaction to the growth of immigration across the United States? This tactic has the potential to create fear and distrust of the police in many Latino communities, where some families are blended, including immigrant parents and children born and raised in the United States. For example, the Border Patrol recently announced plans to check the documents of Texas residents in the Rio Grande Valley in event of a hurricane evacuation before they are allowed to board evacuation buses. Some residents were concerned that this policy would encourage some people to not evacuate, further endangering immigrant communities and burdening agencies engaged in evacuation, rescue, and relief efforts.
This, of course, has a potential parallel in many immigrant communities. As immigrant blacks, such as Haitians in Miami, move into older African American areas, should we expect more or fewer negative encounters with police profiling in the cities of Miami, Miami Shores, North Miami, El Portal, Biscayne Park, and adjacent communities? Similarly, what about when whites were replaced by Haitians in these areas? These are neighborhoods or municipalities where the lack of attention to heavily immigrant black communities versus African American areas is another unfortunate oversight. Will border police, in search of immigrant blacks, profile African Americans, creating even more hostility in a community already resistant to police authority? Miami is an ethnically diverse community, with many Latino groups hailing heavily from the Caribbean basin. Perhaps cities such as Los Angeles and Houston, where the Mexican-origin population resides alongside Salvadorans and other Latino group members, provide yet another alternative scenario to the study of Latinos and police.
What is the impact of public or police corruption in the home country for Latino immigrants? It is possible that, as disadvantaged as conditions may be, that immigrants may use their home countries, which might have even worse economic and political conditions, as reference points when assessing their economic position relative to others, but the impact of these comparisons on police encounters requires more research. For example, research on human smuggling suggests that law enforcement officials actively aid in facilitating illegal immigrants’ exit from their country of origin to the United States. Public officials openly request money and gifts to facilitate the immigration process to the extent that workers in the smuggling business consider public corruption a cost of doing business (Chavez, 2008). Even though they develop a general distaste for corruption and the extraction of bribes, which cuts into their profit margins, in the end public or police corruption is part of the price built into the smuggling business. These activities probably shape immigrants’ perceptions, expectations, and tolerance of American law enforcement. It very well might be that an immigrant’s prior experience in his or her home country has set such a low standard of expectation that it affects what he or she expects and will tolerate in the United States. Given the widespread popularity of immigration crackdowns, researchers should reconsider what works and what does not work when trying to improve police–citizen relations in Latino communities.
The growth of Latino populations across the United States has probably sparked an interest in increasing ethnic diversity among many police organizations; however, relatively few major departments are primarily Latino, and thus more research is needed on how the changing ethnic composition of these organizations influences the relationship between race/ethnicity and crime. Communities of varying racial–ethnic makeup potentially have unstable relations with criminal justice organizations, especially in regard to police behavior. The extant literature has clearly provided a foundation on which to build an awareness of how Latino police officers interact with others beyond Miami, especially in the southwestern United States, where the history of racial–ethnic relations is very different from that in the rest of the country. Research on perceptions of police by family members, friends, coworkers, school mates, and neighbors of Latino residents who interact with law enforcement agencies routinely remains in short supply.
Scholars clearly should broaden their focus beyond blacks and whites to include Latinos with varying levels of citizenship status whenever possible in future research on police treatment and the criminal justice system. The growth of Latinos across broad sectors of U.S. society requires a renewed focus on multiple racial/ethnic/immigrant groups in the comparison of experiences with the police across a variety of communities and regions. Related to the growing ethnic diversity across the nation is the renewed concern about the influx of immigrants and the perpetuation of stereotypes on criminal immigrant Latinos by political commentators, policymakers, and residents in areas with growing immigrant Latino populations. The incorporation of Latinos will help scholars of violent crime, serious delinquency, and policing produce a broader understanding of the race/ethnic and violent crime linkages and expand that focus to include the diverse ecological contexts in which blacks, whites, and Latinos reside.
In addition, early scholars had an intimate understanding of the role Latinos and immigrants played in crime and police research in their era. Regrettably, that degree of familiarity seems to have disappeared from much of the recent criminology and policing literature, making it difficult for readers to benefit from the insights arising not only from the violent crime and disadvantage literature but also from other areas in the social sciences, especially the insights yielded by recent immigration studies. Until we bring Latinos and immigrants back into the study of crime, while considering citizenship status, our understanding of race/ethnicity will be underdeveloped at best.
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