With an estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the United States, talk of a crackdown on illegal immigration has created tension in cities across the country.
For America's police chiefs, calls for enhanced enforcement of federal immigration laws bring a particular concern. Chiefs are afraid that such efforts will have the unintended consequence of actually increasing crime and making their communities less safe. The reasons for this can be found in recent incidents from some of the country's so-called sanctuary cities.
In Tucson, for example, an undocumented man confronted and physically struggled with a man who tried to steal a car with children inside. The immigrant held the criminal long enough for local police to arrive, then cooperated with detectives in the follow-up investigation. As a result, the suspect was charged with kidnapping, auto theft and burglary.
In Laredo, Texas, Sister Rosemary Welsh runs Casa de Misericordia, which provides shelter to women, many of whom are undocumented immigrants and victims of domestic violence. Because of the trust Sister Rosemary has built with local law enforcement and the women in her facility, more victims are reporting crime, and more offenders are identified and prosecuted.
Los Angeles, a city with an estimated 375,000 undocumented immigrants, has had a policy prohibiting police from engaging in enforcement activities based solely on a person's immigration status since 1979. Last year, LAPD officers had an encounter with a suspected gang member that resulted in a vehicle chase, a foot pursuit and shots being fired. An undocumented immigrant helped police locate the suspect by providing a description and vehicle information.
Had these undocumented people, and countless others in cities across America, not stepped forward to report crime and cooperate with the police, we would have more dangerous offenders committing more crime — and more serious crime — against innocent victims.
Police chiefs know that today's unreported domestic violence or sexual assault or robbery can become tomorrow's reported homicide. This is a special concern in immigrant communities, where many people fear that cooperating with the police may lead to scrutiny and even deportation. It's why cities have adopted policies like the one in Los Angeles, and it's why police departments have invested considerable time and resources to build trust and cooperation with all of their communities, including their immigrant communities. They know that when people step forward because they trust their local police, communities are safer.
For all these reasons, the label of sanctuary city is a misnomer. The term "sanctuary" dates to classical Greece and Rome, and to Christian traditions in the Middle Ages. Back then, sanctuaries provided certain protections to fugitives in churches or other sacred locations. The details changed over time, but sanctuary generally consisted of limited, temporary protections to people suspected of certain types of crimes, and only in narrow circumstances.
The use of the term to describe a set of protections for undocumented immigrants implies that they somehow get a pass to commit crime within those jurisdictions. This is simply not the case. It is the mission of all police departments, including those in so-called sanctuary cities, to go after serious and violent criminal offenders for investigation, arrest, and prosecution, regardless of their immigration status.
In reality, sanctuary cities are hardly sanctuaries for any criminals. Because of the trust and cooperation they have developed with undocumented immigrants, police in these cities are often able to identify, arrest and prosecute dangerous offenders who might otherwise still be on the streets victimizing residents — both citizens and undocumented immigrants.
The issues of public safety and immigration are too complex to be captured in a catchphrase, and they are not new. In the decade that our organization has spent exploring the role of local police in immigration issues, police chiefs have consistently reported several key points.
First, the current system of enforcement is a logical division of labor in which all parties know what is expected of them. Federal agencies, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), enforce immigration laws, which are federal statutes. Local police agencies enforce state and local criminal laws. These roles are compatible and complementary.
Second, local police have their hands full — investigating murders, robberies, sexual assaults, burglaries, thefts and other crimes, and working to prevent these and other crimes from occurring. When local police identify a suspect and have probable cause, they make the arrest, without regard to the suspect's immigration status.
Finally, police chiefs warn that if their agencies are required to enforce federal immigration laws, it will hurt their ability to investigate and solve serious crimes in their communities. If people are afraid to have contact with the local police, they will not report crime, serve as witnesses, or tell police what is going on in their neighborhoods. Without information from the community, investigating crime becomes difficult and crime levels rise.
So that we can have a constructive discussion on public safety and immigration, let's retire the tired misnomer "sanctuary cities" once and for all. Let's focus on what it really takes to make our communities safer.
Chuck Wexler is executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which works with police departments to improve the policing profession.