Research Political Sciences

Not All Immigrants Are Equal: When Legalized, They Commit Half the Crimes

, by Fabio Todesco
Paolo Pinotti analyzed the behavior of those that obtained a residence permit in 2007 in Italy and observed a steep fall in economic crimes. But Western societies should choose whether to legalize more of them or enforce stricter immigration policies

Legalizing immigrants has the side effect of halving their crime rates, Paolo Pinotti (Bocconi's Department of Policy Analysis and Public Management) reckons in Clicking on Heaven's Door: The Effect of Immigrant Legalization on Crime, in American Economic Review, 107(1): 138-68, doi: 10.1257/aer.20150355.

Pinotti comes to his conclusion exploiting an odd feature of Italian law: fixed quotas of residence permits are available each year, applications must be submitted electronically by employers on a specific "click day" and are processed on a first come, first served basis until the available quotas are exhausted. Even though permits should be given to foreigners living abroad, everyone knows that in fact they live in Italy without documents and the click day amounts to a lottery-like legalization of a share of immigrants. The click day of December 2007, analyzed by Pinotti, legalized 170,000 people out of an estimated 610,000 undocumented immigrants living in Italy at the time, i.e. around 28%.

As immigrants are well aware of the first come, first served rule, they all rush to submit their applications in the early morning of the click day and after a while the flow dries to nearly zero. In 2007 the click day started at 8:00am, the last accepted application was received by the servers in Milan at 8:27am and by 9:40am no one was sending applications any more. In his paper, Pinotti compares crime rates of immigrants who sent their applications immediately before the cutoff hour and those who sent them immediately after. The result is that legalized immigrants' crime rate fell by half in the following year, while the crime rate of those who hadn't made it remained unchanged.

The conclusions confirm those already reached by Pinotti and co-author Giovanni Mastrobuoni in Legal Status and the Criminal Activity of Immigrants (in American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 7(2): 175-206, doi: 10.1257/app.20140039), a paper that won the AEJ: Applied Economics Best Paper Award 2016. In that case, Pinotti exploited two concomitant events: a collective pardon that released 22,000 inmates from Italian prisons (10,000 of them foreigners) in August 2006 and the enlargement of the EU in January 2007, that gave legal status to Romanians and Bulgarians, included those just pardoned. In the following year, their rate of recidivism was half that of other comparable foreigners subject to the same collective pardon.

"In both cases", says Pinotti, "the fall of crime rates is due to economic crimes, while violent crimes are unaffected. It suggests that the legalization lowers the incentives to commit crimes that are imperfect substitutes for legal economic activities. It's worth noting that the access to the legal job market is enough to trigger the change, even if the legalized immigrant hasn't yet a job, as a close look to the applications suggests that many can be fraudulent". More than 40% of the applications, for example, are for male domestic workers to be mostly employed by other foreigners, while only 2.4-4.1% of male immigrants result to be really employed as domestic workers.

"If it's the illegal status, and not the immigrant status, to raise crime rates", Pinotti continues, "we have to conclude that quotas are too low. According to your political views you could prefer higher quotas or a stricter and really enforced immigration policy, but the status quo is not effective. Finally, some aspects of the click day are farcical and resource-draining, as the need to go back to the country of origin and re-enter Italy after the application has been accepted".