Facts still matter: Data shows sanctuary cities keep communities safer

Since the first week President Trump took office, so-called “sanctuary cities” have been a favored target, and it’s clear from his State of the Union speech that they will continue to feature prominently as a way of rallying the base in his reelection campaign. Trump is incensed about the hundreds of jurisdictions across the country that set limits on local law enforcement cooperation with federal immigration enforcement. 

The president said that sanctuary policies “breed crime,” language seemingly designed to convey dystopian images of lawlessness wherein undocumented immigrants commit crimes with impunity. But on multiple occasions, my research, which uses the government’s data, shows that the president is wrong.

Sanctuary policies do not increase crime. Crime is lower, and economies are stronger in sanctuary counties compared to comparable non-sanctuary counties. My work is supported by other academic research that reveals similar or null findings, meaning there is no relationship between sanctuary policies and crime. 

What do the best available data tell us about sanctuary localities? Using data obtained from a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, I find that sanctuary counties have less crime than comparable non-sanctuary counties. Benjamin Gonzalez O’Brien, Loren Collingwood, and Stephen Omar El-Khatib find that there is “no statistically discernible difference in violent crime, rape, or property crime rates” when comparing sanctuary cities to non-sanctuary comparable towns. 

Moreover, in their review of the literature, Martínez, Martínez-Schuldt, and Cantor conclude that existing studies find a “null or negative relationship between these [sanctuary] policies and crime.”

Additional research I conducted shows that local law enforcement entanglement with immigration enforcement makes it harder for local police to do their jobs. 

When local law enforcement officials do the work of federal immigration enforcement, undocumented immigrants become less likely to report crimes that they witness to the police, become less likely to report crimes that they are victims of to the police, are less likely to use services that require them to disclose their personal contact information, and are even less likely to attend public events where police may be present.

Newer research I have conducted shows that when local law enforcement officials do the work of federal immigration enforcement, undocumented immigrants are less likely to trust that police officers and sheriffs will keep them, their families, and their communities safe; protect the confidentiality of witnesses to crimes even if they are undocumented, protect the rights of all people, including undocumented immigrants, equally, and protect undocumented immigrants from abuse or discrimination. Altogether, when communities are less likely to engage with, interact with, or trust in law enforcement, this undermines public safety.

Despite these facts, however, Trump and his officials continue to attack sanctuary localities, using individual cases to spread fear and obscure the facts. In the State of the Union, the president aimed at New York City for the murder of an elderly woman in Queen and the state of California for another tragic case. 

Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf immediately issued a statement applauding the president’s speech and claiming that “Sanctuary policies do not protect communities — they endanger them.” 

We have seen this playbook before: the administration exploits tragedies when they occur and attributes the causes of these tragedies to policies it objects to. To be clear, in sanctuary jurisdictions, all those charged with criminal conduct face prosecution; local policies limiting cooperation with immigration enforcement do not interfere with criminal justice processes.  

I want to invite the Trump administration to dig into these data with me. Data are not partisan. By focusing our conversation on data, we can avoid the political and ideological traps that engulf so much of the immigration debate. Facts still matter.  

Tom K. Wong, Ph. D. is an associate professor at the University of California, San Diego, Director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Center (USIPC), and a former adviser to the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders under the Obama administration.

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