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Effects of Immigrant Legalization on Crime: The 1986 Immigration Reform Control Act

Feb 2013
Working Paper
12-012
By  Scott Baker
In the late 1970's, rates of undocumented immigration into the United States increased dramatically. This increase led to pressure on the federal government to find some way of dealing with the immigrants, culminating in the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). This paper seeks to examine the effects that the 1986 IRCA, which legalized over 2.5 million undocumented immigrants, had on the commission of crime in the United States. Using administrative data from the IRCA application process, I find evidence that IRCA applicants are associated with higher crime rates prior to legalization and that, subsequent to legalization, this association disappears. I find national decreases in crime of approximately 2%-5% associated with one percent of the population being legalized, primarily due to a drop in property crimes. This fall in crime is equivalent to 160,000-400,000 fewer crimes committed each year due to legalization. Finally, I calibrate a labor market model of crime using empirical wage and employment data and and that much of the drop in crime could be explained by greater job market opportunities among those legalized by the IRCA.