Study Findings

The national scope of gang migration. Approximately 1,000 cities responded to the 1992 mail survey, revealing 710 cities that had experienced gang migration by 1992. The widespread distribution of these cities is reflected in figure 1.6 Only three States had not experienced gang migration by 1992 -- New Hampshire, North Dakota, and Vermont. The concentration of migration cities in several regions -- most dramatically southern California and the Bay area, the area surrounding Chicago, and southern Florida -- may obscure the geographic distribution. Forty-four percent of migration cities are located in the western region of the country, with slightly less prominence in the midwestern (26 percent) and southern (25 percent) portions of the country. Only 5 percent of the migration cities are situated in the northeastern region of the country.

figure 1

Approximately 80 percent of cities with a population of more than 100,000 have migrant gang members. The overall sample cannot address the proportion of all smaller cities with migration, but the distribution of migration cities by population, shown in figure 2, suggests that this is an issue confronting cities of all sizes. That nearly 100 towns with populations of 10,000 people or less experienced gang migration is striking. This phenomenon is a manifestation of the motivations to relocate and the potential influences of migrant gang members on small-town life and overtaxed law enforcement resources. Moreover, because smaller cities are less likely to have longstanding gang problems, gang migration could be a catalyst for the onset of local gang problems.

figure 2

The sheer number of cities with migrant gang members and the widespread geographic distribution of these cities across the country is dramatic, but the volume of gang migration presents a far less alarming picture. Survey respondents provided an estimate of the number of migrants that had arrived in their city the year prior to survey completion. 7 Just under half (47 percent) of the 597 cities providing an estimate reported the arrival of no more than 10 migrants in the prior year. Only 34 cities (6 percent) estimated the arrival of more than 100 migrants during this period. The significance of such numbers would vary by the size of the city, but the large number of cities reporting insubstantial levels of migration suggests that gang migration may not represent a serious problem in many cities.

Survey respondents were asked to provide a demographic profile of migrant gang members. The typical age reported ranged from 13 to 30, and the mean and median age was 18. Female migrants were uncommon; more than 80 percent of the cities noted five or fewer. Compared with the ethnic distribution of gang members nationally, migrant gang members were somewhat more likely to be black. Approximately half of the cities polled in the survey reported that at least 60 percent of migrant gang members were black; predominantly Hispanic distributions emerged in 28 percent of the cities. The predominance of Asian (14 cities or 7 percent) or white (2 cities) migrant gang members was unusual.

Gang migration and local gang proliferation. The potential for gang migration to have a harmful impact on local gang activity and crime rates may increase substantially if migrant gang members foster the proliferation of local gang problems in their destination cities. This is a pivotal issue, and data of several types are available for elaboration. The characteristics of cities with local gangs can be compared with those of cities with migrant gangs to establish the parameters of the relationship. Of particular interest are the dates of local gang formation and migration onset. Law enforcement perceptions about the causes of local gang problems are also relevant. Lastly, the motivations of gang members to migrate and their patterns of gang activity upon arrival must be considered.

Through the survey of 1,100 cities, it was found that most, but not all, cities that have local gangs also have migrant gang members. Conversely, nearly all cities with gang migration also have local gangs. The 1992 survey identified 792 cities with local gangs; of these cities, 127 (16 percent) reported no experience with gang migration (table 1). Only 45 of the 700 identified migration cities (6 percent) had no indigenous gangs. This simple comparison yields 172 cities (22 percent) in which migration could not have caused the emergence of local gangs, at least through 1992. The large proportion of cities with both local and migrant gang members made it difficult to detect any differences between local gang and migrant gang cities. Distributions across city size categories and geographic region are negligible (data not shown).

table 1

Another pertinent point of comparison from the survey is the date of onset of local gangs and the year in which migrant gang members first arrived in cities with local and migrant gang members. (These data are shown in figure 3 with some loss of cases due to the respondents' inability to estimate at least one of the dates.) Only 31 of cities with local gangs (5 percent) reported the onset of gang migration at least 1 year prior to the emergence of local gangs. Most cities (54 percent) had local gangs prior to gang migration. Adding these 344 cities (i.e., those with local gangs before migrants) to the prior figure of 172 cities that have just one or the other gang type yields a total of 516 cities that clearly challenge the notion of migration as the cause of local gang proliferation. While the picture for cities with coincidental onset of the two types of gang members is ambiguous, it seems reasonable to conclude that cities in which migration provides the catalyst for indigenous gang formation are the exception rather than the rule. The telephone interviews confirm this pattern; the majority of informants (81 percent) disagreed with the statement, "Without migration, this city wouldn't have a gang problem."

figure 3

It can be argued that the concern over gang migration is most pertinent to emerging gang cities. The national gang surveys (Miller, 1996) discussed earlier have shown that the major proliferation of gang cities has occurred since the 1980's. 8 Nearly 70 percent of the 781 gang cities that could provide a date of emergence reported one after 1985. These cities can be characterized as "emergent" rather than "chronic" gang cities (Spergel and Curry, 1990). Emergent gang cities are equally as likely to report gang migration as chronic cities (84 percent of the cities in each group). However, cities with gang onset after 1985 are significantly less likely to report that local gangs preceded gang migration (40 percent versus 88 percent), as might be expected when they are compared with cities with longstanding local gang problems. Emergent cities are more likely to experience the onset of local gangs and migrants in the same year as opposed to chronic cities (53 percent versus 11 percent). The majority of respondents interviewed from emergent gang cities believed that migration was not the cause of local gang problems. This figure was significantly lower for emergent gang cities (73 percent) than for chronic gang cities (93 percent). This shows that the conclusion that migration is not generally the catalyst for gang proliferation holds up, but the exceptions to this general rule can most often be found in emergent gang cities.

Patterns of gang migration. Examination of the reasons gang members migrate to other cities and their patterns of gang affiliation in the new city shows that migration is not a major catalyst of gang proliferation. Survey interviewers asked participating officers to choose from a list of reasons why most gang members moved into their cities. The most frequently cited reason was that gang members moved with their families (39 percent). When this was combined with the reason of staying with relatives and friends, 57 percent of the survey respondents believed that migrants relocated primarily for social reasons. Drug market expansion was the second most frequently cited motivation (20 percent of cities) for migrating. When this was combined with other criminal opportunities, it created a larger category of illegal attractions, or "pull" motivators, in 32 percent of cities reporting an influx of migrant gangs. "Push" motivators that forced gang members to leave cities, such as law enforcement crackdowns (8 percent), court-ordered relocation, or a desire to escape gangs, were cited in 11 percent of migrant-recipient cities.

Are these patterns of motivation for migrating different in cities with emergent gangs as compared with those cities with chronic local gang problems? The data shown in table 2 provide evidence that they clearly are not. Emergent gang cities have nearly equal proportions of socially motivated gang migration as chronic gang cities. "Pull" motivators (primarily drug market expansion) and "push" motivators are less frequent reasons for gang member relocation than social motivations in both types of city.

table 2

There are no differences between the two types of gang cities with regard to patterns of migrant gang activity. Approximately one-third (38 percent) of survey respondents stated that gang migrants established new gangs or recruited for their old gangs; 36 percent reported that gang migrants joined existing local gangs or exclusively retained affiliation with their old gangs. The proportions of each in chronic and emergent gang cities are quite similar (data not shown). Thus, data on motivations for migrating and on migrant patterns in joining gangs provide little support for the view of migrants as primary agents of gang proliferation and no evidence for differential impact on emergent gang cities.

    6 A few cities with gang migration were not included in this map because respondents were unable to specify the year of the first arrival of gang members from other cities.

    7 A separate estimate of the total number of migrants was discarded as less reliable than the annual estimate. Even the annual estimate should be considered with caution, as few departments maintained records on gang migration. Some officers had difficulty generalizing to the city as a whole, based upon their own experience, and many migrants presumably do not come to the attention of the police.

    8 Klein (1995) provides a highly illustrative series of maps displaying dates of onset of local gang problems using data gathered in the migration study.

Gang Members on the Move Juvenile Justice Bulletin   ·  October 1998