The Gatepost Interview: Vincent Ferraro Assistant Professor of Sociology

By Jesse Sannicandro

Staff Writer

What is your educational background?

I did my bachelor’s at University of Connecticut/Storrs. I did my master’s and my Ph.D. at Northeastern University in the department of sociology.

What areas of research are you drawn to?

Broadly, issues of inequality and more specifically, I focus on immigration and crime, which is kind of a misnomer because most of the research shows, and most of mine does as well, that there’s no effect of immigration on crime, or where there is one, it’s a negative effect. … More immigrants means less crime.

What inspired you to study immigration?

In undergrad, I was really interested in deviance, which is a course I teach now, and the ways in which certain groups or populations are marked as dangerous or deviant, or whatever the term may be. And in some other research I’ve been doing, I sort of kept coming across white supremacy. I’ve worked with hate crimes as well and so I kept coming across a lot of discussions that were framing immigrants as dangerous in terms of crime to “American culture.” So, the more I looked into it, the more I found that none of those attitudes was backed up by evidence. And in fact, going back to the late 1800s, the evidence suggested that immigrants were no more likely to engage in crime than were native-born Americans, and if anything, they were less likely to do so. So, that’s when it became this puzzle for me. Why do we hold these attitudes? Why do we hold these beliefs when centuries worth of research suggest that it’s patently, demonstrably false? I don’t have an answer to that one yet, though.

Is this a common field of study?

The immigration and crime nexus, as it often gets called, is … a specialization within criminology. It’s certainly grown in the last, I’d say, 15 years. When I was first starting there were only maybe a handful of folks who were doing any research in the area and it’s really exploded, again, over the last 15 years. Criminology is an interdisciplinary field, so there are economists that work in the area, and psychologists, and sociologists and criminal justice folks.

How would you hope your field of study could affect legislation that’s being proposed?

I was just at the annual meeting for the American Society of Criminology (ASC) and I spoke at a panel with a guy by the name of Walter Ewing, who heads the AIC, American Immigration Council. … He and I got to talking and he suggested that what we need are more pieces on policy approaches. And I’m actually working on one now and I guess, overall, my hope is that the rhetoric that we’re seeing now that posits immigrants as threats and that advocates for building a wall or shutting people out that that’s in no way going to reduce crime because there’s really no need for it. And if anything, the rhetoric itself might be contributing to higher incidents of anti-immigrant hate. … My hope is that my research might bring a more informed, sensible and evidence-based approach. This idea of building a wall, there’s quotes from the first Chief Justice, John Jay, where he calls for building a wall against Catholic invaders. So, we’re talking a century ago, by which he’s advocating against Catholics, effectively Irish and Italians. So, this is not a new idea. The groups are different but the idea is the same.

It’s interesting both of your fields of research seem to be connected to anti-Muslim sentiment. What would you say about that in relation to hate crimes?

I think we can trace that and it’ll be, I would imagine, a couple of years, before we have a good body of evidence. But I think that the preliminary research is suggesting that … we saw a spike right after the election, which has been interpreted as giving license to those who hold hateful, racist views. We saw the same thing right after Obama’s election. We saw spikes there as well. … The 9/11 ones were tough. It was interesting. … I was in the same panel I was at at ASC. The anecdotal evidence was strong, that after 9/11 there was an increase in anti-Muslim, racist incidents. But part of the problem was that the FBI records were super poor in terms of recording hate. And so, when you looked at those data and just how they were coded by the FBI, it’s sort of undercounted … the incidents of anti-Muslim attacks. But at this conference I was at in November, one of the panelists had investigated some of those data and what she found was that those accounts had been coded as anti-other ethnicity, which was this catch-all category. So, it seemed that there was sort of an unwritten policy. It’s hard to say why it was happening, but some of the attacks were basically getting miscoded at some point in the process. So, I think when we look at those, even now if we were to go back and do some analyses with some of those anti-other hate crimes, we’d see the evidence for a spike after 9/11 was probably even higher than originally had been thought.

What is one book, regardless of major, that you think every student should read?

That’s a tough one. I’d say, of recent books I’ve looked at right now, Alex Rios’s “Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys.”

Have you traveled anywhere lately?

Well, last summer, I had a trip to Montreal for a few days, which was good, but that was about the extent of it. I was in New Orleans, too, for the conference. … My uncle lives down there, and I got to see him, but it was a trip where I was in and out, but I mean, that’s a beautiful city. And I suppose that was my biggest regret. I hadn’t been down there since Katrina, and I didn’t get to see much of the area. I saw a little bit of the French Quarter. … I know they built up a new village for… musicians. I wanted to get over there, but I never saw it.

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