Sanctuary for immigrants?

Crime, trust, and community in America

Josh T. Smith
Jan 2 · 6 min read

Across the country, hundreds of cities, states, and counties are having the same conversation about sanctuary policies for immigrants. In December of 2019, Madison, Wisconsin, became a microcosm of that discussion. The conclusions that each jurisdiction across the U.S. reaches may have dramatic effects on US immigration policy.

The conversation in Madison was about a proposal to require that city police officers enforce federal immigration rules. Sanctuary policies vary, as it’s not a legal term with an accepted definition. In general, they specify ways police departments will work (or not work) with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). For example, ICE issues detainer requests to police departments that have arrested a person if they believe that person is subject to detainment and deportation. If a police department has a policy of declining those requests, not notifying ICE when they plan to release an individual or not participating in federal programs that deputize local police officers to enforce federal immigration law, then there’s a good chance that the department is operating with some sanctuary policy.

In Madison’s case, the hearing discussed a proposed bill to ban sanctuary cities in Wisconsin, a typical state-level response when cities or counties create their own sanctuary ordinances. As conversations across the country often do, the hearing revolved around how sanctuary cities affect public safety.

Critics of sanctuary policies argue that the immigrants that ICE wants to detain are a public threat. That sanctuary policies make it harder to remove dangerous individuals from the U.S. Proponents point out that these policies encourage immigrant communities to work with police by increasing trust. If a person faces the potential for deportation or even racial profiling, they may be unlikely to report a crime that they witness or suspicious activity.

Research on sanctuary policies is just beginning to emerge, which often leaves those having these conversations in the dark about their effects on public safety. Yet we can learn a lot from other research on immigration policy, and what we know so far tells a hopeful story about the potential for sanctuary policies to promote immigrant integration without unintended costs.

Depending on who you ask, the number of sanctuary jurisdictions varies dramatically. USA Today reported the number at more than 300, including cities, counties, and states. In fact, even though Madison’s Capitol building was filled with both pro-immigrant and anti-immigrant activists, it isn’t on many of the popular maps of jurisdictions with sanctuary policies.

For example, the Center for Immigration Studies maintains a map with markers for city, county, and state sanctuary policies.

A map showing the locations of sanctuary cities.
A map showing the locations of sanctuary cities.
Source: Pacific Standard.

The key to understanding sanctuary policies, despite the disagreement on specifics, is in how they affect ICE’s relationship with local police departments. A loose working definition for sanctuary policies is simply those jurisdictions that limit the involvement of their law enforcement officials in federal immigration policy enforcement. It’s also useful in part because it reveals some of the confusion around sanctuary policies.

The biggest myth about sanctuary policies is that they prevent or prohibit cooperation between ICE and police officers. Because they don’t. One example is from 2017 in Travis County, Texas. The Sheriff, Sally Hernandez, chose not to honor ICE detainer requests for low-level offenses and prohibited personnel from asking about documentation status. Still, this sanctuary policy listed several crimes for which they would honor detainers, even as they release individuals that they judge not to be a threat.

Besides, sanctuary policies don’t prevent police departments from honoring warrants that ICE obtains. Warrants legally require the police department to hold the individual named in the warrant for ICE to take custody of or question. A detainer request is exactly that, a request, and not a legal requirement.

As President Trump’s administration has noted, federal law requires that sub-national jurisdictions allow communication between local officials and federal immigration authorities. That doesn’t prohibit sanctuary policies of at least some flavors. In fact, attempts to prevent sanctuary city policies have failed multiple times in the courts, suggesting that sanctuary policies can be designed in legal ways.

Another element of the discussion of sanctuary policies that is often misunderstood is the relationship between these policies and crime.

There is not a lot of research on sanctuary policies’ effects on crime. Still, the existing evidence indicates no relationship between the policies and crime rates. A more limited set of research shows a potential beneficial effect where sanctuary reduces crime. Data collection is difficult and since policies often differ significantly from one jurisdiction to the next, meaningful comparisons using statistical analysis can be tough to come by.

The limited published papers on sanctuary cities and crime show no real relationship. One, published in May of 2017, finds “no statistically discernible difference in violent crime, rape, or property crime rates across the cities.” It notes that the data limitations affected the findings, but that there is a good case to be made that sanctuary policies promote public safety by encouraging cooperation between local law enforcement and immigrant communities. The second paper, from December of 2017, tells a similar story. There are also two separate working papers, which aren’t yet published or peer-reviewed, each by economics Ph.D. students that find similar effects. Given the newness of the research there’s cause for caution in interpreting their findings, but what statistical evidence exists is hopeful.

Although research on sanctuary policies is new, broader research on immigrants and crime is not. And looking at these findings helps sets a base level for how you should approach new immigration policies, like the question of sanctuary. In this research area, the consensus is clear — natives are actually more likely to be involved in crime than are immigrants.

As immigration experts Madeline Zavodny and Pia Orrenius conclude in their review of the existing research, “[R]esearch overwhelmingly indicates that immigrants are less likely than similar US natives to commit violent and property crimes and that areas with more immigrants have similar or lower rates of violent and property crimes than areas with fewer immigrants.” So in any conversation about immigration and crime, there’s expansive research to justify skepticism, if not outright disbelief, about claims that immigrants bring crime into communities.

In this light, sanctuary policies reflect the limited resources that all police departments have. For example, a bed filled with a person that ICE issued a request to hold is a bed that can’t hold someone else. This calculation may be part of what motivated the Travis County sheriff to embrace sanctuary practices in her department. After all, when officers arrest someone for a low-level offense, they often view the expense of holding that person as outweighing the benefits of detaining that person. Faced with this calculus, they release low-level offenders. Though this cost-benefit thinking is only part of the reason that many police departments like sanctuary policies, as Madison’s police department noted, sanctuary policies may also draw in support from immigrant communities.

The missing puzzle piece in all of this is an understanding of how immigrant communities respond to sanctuary policies. For example, it’s easy to find law enforcement officers across the country on both sides of the issue. Some say that the sanctuary builds trust, and others say it allows criminals to avoid punishment.

It’s essential to admit that we don’t know a lot about sanctuary cities and their success at actually producing greater cooperation. What we do know, however, shows that they’re low-risk policies to experiment with. As the authors of the first study on sanctuary and crime conclude, “The potential benefits of sanctuary cities, such as better incorporation of the undocumented community and cooperation with police, thus have little cost for the cities in question in terms of crime.”

That conclusion echoes a more significant point that immigration policy experts have been making for several years — immigrants are assets to their local communities. People bring prosperity, and states like Wisconsin will benefit more from recognizing that than from anti-sanctuary policies. Instead of enforcement approaches, it’s likely that welcoming practices and policies like providing sanctuary are better tools for promoting community welfare. Cities and states considering sanctuary policies will find that they gain more from encouraging immigrant communities to integrate themselves than by using their law enforcement resources to seek out undocumented immigrants.

A publication by The Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University

Josh T. Smith

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I'm interested in energy issues, environmental policies, immigration questions, and almost everything else too.

The Benchmark

A publication by The Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University

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