The Crime–Immigration Nexus: Cultural Alignment and Structural Influences in Self-Reported Serious Youth Delinquent Offending Among Migrant and Native Youth

AuthorRenske S. van der Gaag
Published date01 November 2019
Date01 November 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
2019, Vol. 35(4) 431 –460
© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1043986219881827
The Crime–Immigration
Nexus: Cultural Alignment
and Structural Influences
in Self-Reported Serious
Youth Delinquent
Offending Among
Migrant and Native Youth
Renske S. van der Gaag1,2
Young people with a migrant background are often overrepresented in crime
statistics. This study used data from the third International Self-Report Delinquency
(ISRD3) study to examine to what extent cultural alignment—cultural resemblance
between host and heritage country—and structural influences—socioeconomic
starting position and related disadvantage—mediated differences in offending between
native students and students of four different migrant backgrounds—Western, Post-
Communist, Asian, Middle Eastern—in five Western European countries. This study
showed that all migrant groups, except for the Asian group, had significantly higher
lifetime serious offending rates than native students. Opposed to the expectations,
however, the Western group with the highest levels of cultural alignment—
suggesting easier adaptation to the host country—also had the highest offending
rates. In the mediation analysis, cultural alignment and structural disadvantage did not
satisfactorily explain the relatively large differences in offending between Western
and native students and further research would be needed to better understand
these differences. In contrast, for the Middle Eastern group, structural disadvantage
fully explained differences in offending with native students, also when accounting for
cultural alignment; in other words, mechanisms related to structural disadvantage—
1Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the Netherlands
2Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, the Netherlands
Corresponding Author:
Renske S. van der Gaag, Department of Political Science and Public Administration, Faculty of Social
Sciences, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, De Boelelaan 1081, 1081 HV Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
881827CCJXXX10.1177/1043986219881827Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justicevan der Gaag
432 Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 35(4)
for example, exposure to risks of delinquent development—for this group appeared
to be more determining in explaining differences in offending with natives than their
level of cultural alignment or background. For Asian and Post-Communist students,
structural disadvantage mediated the largest part of the difference in offending with
natives, but cultural alignment for these groups also explained part of this difference.
This finding suggests that for these two groups mechanisms related to both cultural
alignment—for example, acculturation processes, higher probability of parent–child
conflict, and so on—and structural disadvantage are needed to understand differences
in offending with native students.
youth delinquency, migrant youth, migration, social disadvantage, culture, adolescent
Immigration is a highly debated issue in many Western countries. Youth delinquent
behavior is one outcome that is frequently linked to immigration in public debate.
Popular media often represent immigration as a cause of crime and the growing fear of
crime fostered by these media is dominating the public perception of immigration.
Indeed, young people with a migrant background are often overrepresented in crime
statistics (Junger-Tas et al., 2010). Previous international research, however, found
that some countries produce better outcomes for youths with a migrant background
than others, for instance, in educational achievement and well-being but also in lower
levels of delinquent behavior (Fossati, 2011; Junger-Tas et al., 2010; Killias, 1989).
These findings imply that migrant background—if at all—is not the only factor in
youth delinquent development.
In the academic literature, theoretical perspectives regarding the so-called crime–
immigration nexus generally fall into two groups: “culturalist” and “structuralist” per-
spectives (Portes & Rivas, 2011). Culturalists tend to focus on adaptation to the host
country and developmental problems that could result from adolescents developing in
the context of several, possibly conflicting, cultural frameworks at home, at school,
and in the neighborhood (see, for example, Atzaba, Poria, & Pike, 2007; Marsiglia,
Nagoshi, Parsai, Booth, & Castro, 2014; Phinney, Ong, & Madden, 2000). Structuralists,
on the contrary, emphasize structural factors, such as socioeconomic position of
migrant families, and related advantages or disadvantages that may influence adoles-
cent development (e.g., Brody et al., 2001; Elliott et al., 1996; Sampson, Morenoff, &
Raudenbush, 2005).
Despite global significance, most knowledge on the crime–immigration nexus and
related theories derives from single city- or country-based studies, many of which situ-
ated in the United States (e.g., Davies & Fagan, 2012; Martinez, 2006; Morenoff &
Astor, 2006; Ousey & Kubrin, 2009; Sampson et al., 2005). Many of these US studies
find no evidence for increased rates of migrant offending and even report protective
influences of migration on offending. Research, however, suggests that the context of

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