The Scoop on Sanctuary Cities

What is a sanctuary city? Is it safe to live in one?

Five Figures to Consider

764 counties, representing 24% of the country, limit local law enforcement's detention of illegal immigrants on behalf of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
81% increase in detainer requests by ICE to local governments in first eight months of Trump administration
0 statistically significant difference in violent crime, rape or property crime between sanctuary and non-sanctuary cities
44% lower likelihood of illegal immigrants to be incarcerated compared with native-born Americans
94.3% of ICE detainer requests fulfilled by local law enforcement in fiscal year 2017

Is there really sanctuary in a sanctuary city? For whom? And what is a sanctuary city, anyway? There is no single definition, but in general it is understood to be a jurisdiction that limits cooperation between local police and federal immigration enforcement. This runs the gamut from not sharing information on the immigration status of arrested persons to an unwillingness to detain undocumented immigrants on behalf of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Sanctuary does not hamstring local law enforcement from prosecuting crimes and does not necessarily contribute to homelessness.  Sanctuary policies are, however, causing lots of friction between the federal and local governments; that tension was epitomized this week when Oakland, California, Mayor Libby Schaaf warned constituents of an impending ICE arrest operation, giving immigrants an opportunity to flee.

There are 764 sanctuary counties in the U.S., and the White House and Department of Justice have painted them as the “best friend of gangs and cartels” and places that put the “safety of their communities and residents at risk.” In January the Department of Justice threatened 23 sanctuary jurisdictions, including the states of Oregon, Illinois and California as well as cities in New York, Vermont, New Mexico, Colorado, Mississippi, Washington, Massachusetts, Kentucky and Florida, with a loss of $53 million in federal grants that cover law enforcement expenses, if they don’t more fully cooperate with ICE. In defense of this action, DOJ points to federal statute 8 U.S.C. 1373, which bars state or local policies that prohibit the sharing of immigration status or citizenship information with ICE.

This dispute between federal and local officials regarding compliance with Section 1373 predates the Trump Administration. The difference is that the Obama Administration did not enforce compliance. Nor did it issue as many detainer requests to local law enforcement. In the first eight months of the Trump Administration detainer requests spiked 81%. This, combined with the Administration’s rhetoric portraying illegal immigrants as violent criminals has led some communities with large undocumented populations to double-down. Last year California passed a law that not only bans cooperation with ICE, it also requires employers to inform undocumented employees when ICE requests employee paperwork.

What are the arguments in favor of sanctuary practices? 1) Many local police departments worry that if they become de facto agents of ICE, the 11 million undocumented people in the U.S. will no longer report crime for fear of being deported.  2) Some courts have ruled that warrantless, civil ICE detainers violate detainees’ Fourth Amendment rights. 3) Local governments don’t want to devote local resources to fulfill the federal responsibility of immigration enforcement and believe they are protected in that regard by the Tenth Amendment. 4) Cities have not found that removing illegal immigrants lowers crime. Research backs them up. A study published in Urban Affairs Review last year compared crime rates in sanctuary and non-sanctuary cities of similar characteristics and found no statistically significant difference between them. A recent Cato Institute study of the national incarcerated population found that illegal immigrants were 44% less likely to be incarcerated than native born Americans.

Living in the U.S. as an illegal immigrant is a civil violation, not a crime. When illegal immigrants commit crimes, local law enforcement prosecutes, and information about arrests and immigration status is usually available to the federal government. In New York City, for example, law enforcement reports to ICE on undocumented persons who commit any of 170 serious crimes. In fiscal year 2017 local governments fulfilled 94.3% of requests by ICE to detain ilegal immigrants, and ICE made a total of 143,470 arrests, a 30% increase over 2016, including in sanctuary cities Chicago, San Francisco, Boston and New York City. The biggest jump was in arrests of undocumented persons without previous convictions, which rose 146% and represented 26% of all ICE arrests. DUI, drug, traffic and immigration violations represented a large majority of convictions and pending charges. Meanwhile, immigration court backlogs have reached 667,839 pending cases, which represents about three years of work at current rates.

The problem of America’s 11 million undocumented residents should be addressed through U.S. immigration policy, not criminal law enforcement. The solution lies in immigration reforms such as increasing the number of H-2A/B work visas, as we reported last month, not by pressing local law enforcement into detaining non-criminal, undocumented residents and further clogging our immigration courts.