Friday, March 6, 2009

What Makes Communities Safe? Debunking the Myth of "Sanctuary Cities"

In my post yesterday, I discussed the 287(g) program, an agreement between state/local law enforcement agencies and ICE that allows deputized police officers to enforce immigration law.

While I talked about the House Subcommittee on Homeland Security hearing in which the GAO submitted testimony regarding the lack of oversight of the 287(g) program and two law enforcement officers submitted contrasting views of the program, today I wanted to follow up on an issue that is frequently brought up when I talk about 287(g) programs: so-called "sanctuary cities."

A "sanctuary city" is a city that follows strict community policing policies, or perhaps even passed a state or local "separation" ordinance, ensuring that police officers investigate a crime regardless of a person's immigration status. In reverse, such "separation" practices ensure that immigrants feel comfortable reporting crimes to the police without fear of deportation.

The logic behind such ordinances is that immigration law is extremely complex, and as I said yesterday, not until 1996 were there even statutes allowing federal immigration agencies to deputize immigration enforcement to state and local law enforcement agencies.

Most immigration violations (all of which are federal) are civil, not criminal, offenses. This means, that to charge someone with an immigration offense, the officer actually has to see the person commit the civil offense--much like a speeding ticket in which the officer must catch you speeding.

While legally this is complicated by presence in the United States being a "positive right," the point of a "sanctuary city" or a separation ordinance is to ensure that local law enforcement's energy is focused on keeping communities safe and NOT on checking peoples' status.

Now, I want to make clear that state and local police officers have ALWAYS had the authority to arrest someone suspected of criminal activity--regardless of their immigration status--and report that person to ICE. It's only that programs like 287(g) go further by allowing/asking law enforcement to go after what one colleague of mine describes as "windex-wielding hotel maids"--i.e. not exactly the "criminal" that makes our streets unsafe.

In turn, amounting evidence shows that law enforcement officers in non-sanctuary cities spend more time (and money) looking into immigration status than carrying out the warrants of arrest for people who have truly made our communities unsafe.

"Sanctuary cities," however, have received a lot of negative attention from anti-immigrant advocates. Some members of Congress have even proposed cutting off funds for cities which engage in sanctuary or separation practices. They argue that these cities provide "sanctuary" for foreign-born criminals.

As I pointed out above though, this is a myth that is absolutely not true.

For more information on the "myth" of sanctuary cities, check out Immigration Impact's new report "Debunking the Myth of 'Sanctuary Cities: Community Policing Policies Protect American Communities. "


  1. In our small N.E. Georgia county, we have seen arrests and crime rise over 800% in the past decade, almost entirely due to "immigration". Over 75% of the defendants are "undocumented" aliens.
    We are a welcoming community, but enough is enough, and finally our Sheriff bowed to public outrage and initiated participation in the "287(g)" program. Crime in our county is now beginning to drop, as the combination of law enforcement, deportations, and lack of construction labourer jobs have dried up.
    We have enough local people to fill the construction jobs, even if the developers would prefer to exploit "undocumented" Mexicans for Worker's Compensation free, below minimum wage slave labor.
    Folks in Oconee County now realize that "undocumented" aliens invite the abuse of the poor and uneducated, at the expense of our neighbors who need honest work.
    The fact is, we have a duty to take care of our own, and this includes keeping out those who feel our laws do not apply to them.
    Every illegal alien accused of a serious crime here, and given bail, has jumped bail. Nearly 100% of the drug trafficking here has involved illegal aliens.
    Why should we tolerate this in our peaceful, God-fearing, close knit community?

  2. I think you raise a number of valid points and opinions that many people would share with you.

    But you asked me "Why should we tolerate this in our peaceful, God-fearing, close knit community?"

    I may not have a perfect answer for you, but I'm going to try and offer my thoughts.

    First, I want to clarify the meaning of some of the statistics that you quoted.

    You are right that 75% of federal detainees are currently immigrants or foreign-born persons. However, the vast majority of these individuals are NOT criminals.

    Immigration violations such as "entry without inspection"--which in most people's minds defines undocumented migration--is NOT a criminal offense. It is a civil violation, equal in law to a speeding ticket. And I don't think many people would believe that everyone who speeds should be thrown in jail indefinitely or without access to legal counsel (which is what many immigrants face). Would you agree?

    So it is important when discussing statistics to know exactly what they are calibrating. An 800% rise in arrests does not actually mean an 800% rise in crime, which legally is distinct from civil offenses.

    The fact that 75% of federal detainees are immigrants does not mean that they are all criminals.

    In fact, a study by the Immigration Policy Center shows that foreign-born persons are LESS likely to commit crimes than native-born citizens. The incarceration of native-born citizens for criminal offenses is actually 5x higher than that of foreign-born persons.

    Another study by the Migration Policy Institute has shown that 75% of immigration arrests are actually targeting people who have no criminal history whatsoever. Many are families trying to make a life for and with their children. Many are trying to keep their families together. Others are fleeing war or domestic violence. They are not criminals, even though they have been arrested or detained.

    As a final thought on this subject, many wonder why non-criminal immigrants would be detained?

    Personally, I don't believe they should be. But legally, the answer is much more complicated.

    In a congressional hearing I attended the other day, one expert witness said that immigration law is as complicated as tax law--and we all know what that is like.

    The point being, however, that because immigration law is so complex--and because it is civil, not criminal--it is not subject to the same rights' protections that many of us would believe inherent to the nation's rule of law.

    I believe that as communities we should not tolerate the incarceration of non-criminal members of our communities, that we should not tolerate the incarceration of children and families whose only "crime" (really only a civil offense) was to be born somewhere else. I believe that we should not tolerate a denial of due process and access to legal counsel under immigration law.

    I believe all of these are essential to maintaining healthy peaceful, and close knit communities.

    But programs like 287(g) which ask local police to act like immigration officers, detaining non-criminal immigrants, divides our communities and makes us see immigrants as criminals--which the majority are not.

    So those are my lengthy thoughts. I would love also to talk about the points you made about labor and low-wage jobs. I too agree that we should protect US-American workers. But this is also a nuanced discussion which I have elaborated about in a previous comment. See:

    Thanks again for your thoughts.