Op-Ed: Giving sanctuary to undocumented immigrants doesn’t threaten public safety—it increases it

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President Trump’s executive order seeking to halt federal funding to sanctuary cities contends that the main function of such jurisdictions is to protect “criminal aliens” from deportation, and warns ominously of a “public safety threat.” The order also would have us believe that public safety would be enhanced if we expanded efforts to remove undocumented immigrants by enlisting local police in a mass deportation campaign.

Quite the opposite is true. Sanctuary jurisdictions — 39 cities and 364 counties across the country have policies that limit local law enforcement’s involvement in enforcing federal immigration laws — increase public safety.

Trump’s executive order effectively revives two highly controversial programs that aimed to enlist state and local police and sheriffs in immigration enforcement: the 287(g) program and Secure Communities. The 287(g) program deputized local and state police and sheriffs to serve as immigration agents and was phased out in the latter years of the Obama administration because of excessive costs and administrative inefficiency. Secure Communities required that people arrested and processed in county jails be screened for immigration violations, and it, too, was phased out during the Obama administration, as mounting evidence showed that the program encouraged racial profiling by local law enforcement.


Those responsible for maintaining law and order believe that sanctuary cities are an important tool for ensuring public safety. In a study published last year by the University of Chicago Press, “Policing Immigrants: Local Law Enforcement on the Front Lines,” researchers interviewed more than 750 police chiefs and sheriffs across the country. In red states and blue states alike, a majority opposed programs like 287(g), expressed serious concerns about involving their officers in immigration enforcement and said that immigration enforcement should remain a federal responsibility.

[A recent study found that] in cities that partnered with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, undocumented residents were anxious about contacting ... police.

In particular, a majority of the interviewees placed a high priority on gaining the trust of immigrants. They reported that in places where local police had been involved in immigration enforcement, immigrants were far more reluctant to contact the police if they were victims of, or witnesses to, a crime. A majority also said that involving local law enforcement in immigration enforcement significantly erodes this critical trust.

Around 9 million people are members of “mixed-status” families who have both undocumented and legal-resident members. If interaction with police can result in arrest and deportation, this population will be reluctant to report crimes, make official statements to police or testify in court. This undermines public safety for everyone, not just immigrants.

Additional evidence comes from another recent study, “Legal Passing: Navigating Undocumented Life and Local Immigration Law,” forthcoming from the University of California Press, for which more than 100 undocumented immigrants in Southern California were interviewed. In the region’s 21 sanctuary cities and counties, undocumented residents were generally willing to interact with police. Their fears revolved around potential retaliation for reporting gang-related activity, not deportation.

But in cities that partnered with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, undocumented residents were anxious about contacting local police. One immigrant interviewed for the study had witnessed an attempted carjacking in a dimly lit parking lot. Although he disrupted the crime by shouting, he fled the scene when the victim called police, fearful that giving a statement would put him at risk of deportation.


Another rationale for Trump’s attack on sanctuary cities is that their existence stimulates more undocumented immigration, but there is no evidence of such a magnet effect. Undocumented migrants, like the vast majority of immigrants in general, are drawn to the United States by economic opportunity and family ties. Some are fleeing gang and drug violence. None of these key drivers of migration would be weakened by the abolition of sanctuary cities.

Trump’s rhetoric also presumes a strong link between undocumented immigrants and crime, but research consistently shows that immigrants are less likely than native-born citizens to commit crimes, including violent ones.

In the absence of comprehensive immigration reform that provides a path to legalization for most of today’s undocumented population, sanctuary jurisdictions are an important tool for maintaining public safety. Punishing them fiscally and bullying their mayors and county executives into abandoning immigrant protections will sow fear among undocumented and mixed-status families, making them more reluctant to invest in homes, businesses and education. Meanwhile, very few are likely to “self-deport.” Two-thirds have been living in the United States for more than 10 years and retain no economic base in their countries of origin, according to a 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center.

We need immigration reform, but sanctuary cities are not the problem. Making undocumented immigrants feel more vulnerable serves no useful public purpose, however politically expedient it may be for President Trump.

Wayne A. Cornelius is emeritus professor of political science at UC San Diego. Angela S. García is a sociologist at the University of Chicago and the author of “Legal Passing: Navigating Undocumented Life and Local Immigration Law.” Monica W. Varsanyi is an associate professor of political science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a co-author of “Policing Immigrants: Local Law Enforcement on the Front Lines.”


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