Mayors across America are doubling down on their cities’ decisions to serve as a "sanctuary" for immigrants living in the country illegally, despite President-elect Donald Trump’s promise to cut federal funding.
Javier Gonzales, mayor of Santa Fe, N.M., appeared on Fox News recently defending his city’s stance to not assist federal officials with immigration enforcement.
Megyn Kelly, host of Fox News’ The Kelly File, asked Gonzales about criticism directed at cities like Santa Fe, claiming that "sanctuary cities" attract criminals. Gonzales said his city prioritizes going after people who commit violent crimes, regardless of their immigration status.
There’s also evidence that sanctuary cities aren’t a magnet for crime, he said.
"Study after study have shown that sanctuary cities do not lead to an increase in crime because of the presence of people that are undocumented," Gonzales said Nov. 16.
Is that true?
Despite the name, a sanctuary city is not always a city, it can be a town, county or other jurisdiction. There isn’t a federal law defining sanctuary locations, but the term is generally applied to places that have policies or ordinances limiting their assistance to federal immigration authorities who seek to apprehend and deport immigrants in the country illegally.
The modern-day sanctuary concept stems from the 1980s when churches opened their doors to shelter Central Americans who fled violence in their countries and lived illegally in the United States, fearing deportation.
The New Sanctuary Movement rolled out in 2007 as places of worship across the country became a refuge for immigrants facing deportation. There are at least 50 congregations across the United States offering sanctuary.
Churches, schools, hospitals and public demonstrations such as rallies and parades are considered by immigration officials as sensitive locations, where enforcement actions are generally avoided but can take place with approval from a supervisor or under "exigent circumstances."
The exact number of jurisdictions deemed sanctuary cities fluctuates as places adopt or abandon policies. The specifics of the policies also vary from place to place. The mayor of New Orleans, for instance, says the term "sanctuary city" does not apply to his city, but some critics say it has practices that parallel policies in other places that openly embrace the title, the Times-Picayune reported.
Lena Graber, a special projects attorney for the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, estimated there are more than 500 counties and 38 cities with policies not to assist U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Federal laws say state and local governments or officers may not prohibit the maintenance or exchange of individuals' immigration records with other local, state or federal entities, according to a 2009 Congressional Research Service report. However, if jurisdictions don't ask individuals about their immigration status, then they don't have the information that could potentially be kept and shared, the report said.
Supporters of sanctuary cities say not questioning people about their immigration status builds trust between police and the community, encouraging residents to report crime.
If an undocumented immigrant gets arrested for a non-immigration offense, they can still be charged, tried and convicted for that crime, Graber said.
Opponents contend that sanctuary cities attract illegal immigration and undermine enforcement of the law.
Any crime by someone in the country illegally is a crime that could have been avoided by having removed that person, said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which seeks to reduce immigration levels.
What studies show
The Santa Fe mayor’s office sent over multiple studies that found immigrants are less prone to commit crime than people born in the United States. They also highlighted a report by the American Immigration Council, a pro-immigrant group, saying that held true for immigrants here legally and illegally.
But there isn’t a lot of research specific to sanctuary cities and their impact on crime, experts said.
Sanctuary ordinances have been around for more than 30 years, but only until recently have social scientists been able to study their effect on crime rates, said Elizabeth F. Cohen, an associate professor of political science at Syracuse University.
A 2009 study out of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law cites Austin, Texas, as an example where cooperation between immigrant communities and law enforcement led to an increase in crime reporting and lower crime levels. Other examples of decreases in crime due to immigrant-friendly policies are also cited in this 2012 study.
Research also suggests that crime reporting -- especially in communities with a high proportion of immigrants -- is very likely negatively impacted when immigration enforcement practices are carried out by local officials, said Charis E. Kubrin, a criminology professor at University of California, Irvine.
A 2014 study by collaborators at University of Chicago and New York University on whether the immigration enforcement program known as Secure Communities reduced crime showed there was no significant rise in crime in sanctuary cities during the program’s rollout, Cohen said. Under the program (which has been replaced), when someone was booked into a police station or jail, that person’s information was sent to the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, ultimately to figure out the person’s immigration record.
The study included analysis of violent crime, property crime and rape.
"Sanctuary policies in terms of leading to crime do not appear to be a problem," the October 2016 study said. "In fact ... almost all research that assesses links between immigration and criminality find an inverse relationship."
Trump campaigned against sanctuary policies by bringing up incidents of undocumented immigrants in these cities committing violent crimes, such as the alleged shooting by a Mexican national of Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco. But we did not turn up evidence of sanctuary cities leading to an increase in crime.
Qualitative information on sanctuary practices suggests they are beneficial to criminal law enforcement practices, said Phil Torrey, a lecturer on law with the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program and supervising attorney for the Harvard Immigration Project.
A rise in crime in a sanctuary city could be caused by factors unrelated to that city’s undocumented population, Torrey said. For instance, a city’s rising population can account for increased overall criminal arrests, he said.
Gonzales said, "Study after study have shown that sanctuary cities do not lead to an increase in crime because of the presence of people that are undocumented."
The data behind Gonzales’ point about sanctuary cities is not conclusive or as extensive as he described. However, a recent study by academic researchers found that sanctuary policies have no effect on crime rates.
Other studies have found a reduction in crime as a result of cooperation between immigrant communities and law enforcement. Scholars also say immigrants, including those in the country illegally, are less likely to commit crimes than the native-born population.
Gonzales' statement overstates the breadth of research on this topic but is on the right track. We rate the claim Half True.