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Faculty Spotlight: Elisa Jácome

IPR economist studies public policy issues centered on immigration, crime, and mental health

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I became very interested in both the lives of immigrant communities in the U.S. and immigrant assimilation, but also the intersection of the immigrant experience and the far-reaching contact of the criminal justice system.”

Elisa Jácome
IPR economist

Elisa Jácome

As an Ecuadorian American, IPR economist Elisa Jácome was interested in understanding poverty and inequality in Latin American countries from a young age—especially how policy could make a difference in the lives of low-income communities. But it wasn’t until she took a class about public finance as an undergraduate at Georgetown University that she recognized how economics shaped poverty and inequality in the United States, too.  

“Once I realized that a lot of what I was very interested in the Latin American or developing country context was also very pervasive and important in the U.S., I never looked back,” she said.

As she began to learn about poverty and inequality in the U.S., she developed interests in the criminal justice system and immigration since policies in these spheres disproportionately impact individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

“I became very interested in both the lives of immigrant communities in the U.S. and immigrant assimilation, but also the intersection of the immigrant experience and the far-reaching contact of the criminal justice system,” Jácome said.

Taking a Historical Perspective on Immigration

As a PhD student at Princeton University, Jácome began working with her thesis advisor, economist Leah Boustan, to study immigrants’ intergenerational mobility.

Their study on immigrants’ intergenerational mobility reveals that children of poor immigrants today earn more than the children of poor U.S.-born parents. Most surprisingly, they discovered that immigrants’ upward movement today follows the same pattern as children of poor immigrants who arrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s. One factor that may explain immigrants’ relative success is that they are more likely to move to areas of the country with better economic opportunities.

Published during a time of heightened focus on immigration policy under the Trump administration, the study received widespread coverage from news outlets such as the New York Times, Bloomberg, and Vox.

Jácome says working with economic historians like Boustan helped her appreciate the importance of studying immigration from a historical perspective. She explains that Americans often think fondly about immigrants in previous generations, but that was not how people in the past viewed these arrivals.

“If you look at the rhetoric in this historical time period, there was significant concern about how immigrants were changing the economy and whether they were going to increase crime rates,” Jácome said. “A lot of the concerns that politicians and the public voice these days are not specific to the U.S. today – they're actually quite similar to rhetoric used in the past.”

She also says looking at multiple generations of immigrants is key to understand immigrants’ overall contribution to the economy through earnings, taxes, and innovation. 

“If you want a holistic picture of what immigration is going to do, it's important to look at that second generation,” she said.

Studying Immigration and Crime 

A common concern among conservatives is that allowing more immigrants into the U.S. will increase crime.

“If you look at Gallup surveys from recent years, Americans expressed that they're more concerned about immigrants’ adverse effect on crime than they are about immigrants’ adverse effects on the economy or jobs,” she explained, saying this motivated her and her colleagues to study immigration and crime.

Jácome’s new working paper with Boustan, Ran Abramitzky and Juan David Torres of Stanford University, and Santiago Perez of UC Davis compares the incarceration rates of immigrants to those of the U.S.-born starting in 1850 through today.  

They show that before 1960, immigrants’ incarceration rates were nearly identical to White U.S.-born men, but since 1960, immigrants as a group are less likely to be incarcerated. Today, immigrants are 30% less likely to be imprisoned.

Despite immigrants’ relatively lower incarceration rates, concerns over public safety led to federal immigration enforcement policies aimed at reducing crime, like the 2008 Secure Communities program. Through a data-sharing program, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency were able to track down and deport non-citizens who came into the custody of state and local law enforcement agencies. But a few years into the program, some worried that it might actually deteriorate public safety by fueling mistrust between the police and immigrant communities who feared being deported, making them less likely to report crime.

To learn what happens to crime reporting when immigration enforcement policies change, Jácome examined the number of violent and property crimes reported to the Dallas Police Department after the 2015 Priority Enforcement Program (PEP) refocused ICE’s efforts on immigrants who posed a serious threat to public safety. She finds that after this new program was implemented, crime reported to the police by Hispanics in Dallas increased by 4%, or 1,200 more serious incidents were reported in a year and a half than would have been otherwise.

She says her study suggests “that these kinds of policies can alter trust between police and Hispanic communities or immigrant communities more broadly.”

Jácome is currently working on research to quantify the effect of the original Secure Communities Program on public safety and community trust across the U.S.

Using Mental Health Services to Deter Crime

When studying crime, economists have analyzed how income and education impact incarceration rates, but they have spent less time studying the way health shapes criminal activity—particularly mental health.

“We're often talking about what policies could be helpful in reducing the wide reach of incarceration in the U.S.,” Jácome said. “I wanted to think about the role of health services, in particular mental health services.”

Her research shows that when a group of low-income men in South Carolina lost access to Medicaid after turning 19, they were more likely to be incarcerated compared to peers who did not. Because the differences were driven by those with mental health issues, Jácome says access to mental health resources could be one way to move the needle on incarceration rates.

“It seems to be the case that there are populations, especially among adolescents, who are really benefiting from having access to these services through the Medicaid program, and when you take those services away, it’s costly,” she said.

Jácome says this study also points to the importance of targeting policy toward demographic groups most at risk for criminal activity—particularly younger men.

“I think this research speaks to this moment in time in late adolescence and the transition to adulthood [and] how policies that affect this age group could potentially  keep individuals from first coming into contact with the justice system,” Jácome said.

Elisa Jácome is an assistant professor of economics and an IPR fellow.

Published: July 20, 2023.