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The Sanctuary City Debate Distracts from Public Safety

The Trump administration’s narrative on crime and immigration received an unfortunate boost from the Department of Justice (DOJ) on Monday.

  • Michael Crowley
March 30, 2017

The Trump administration’s narrative on crime and immigration received an unfortunate boost from the Department of Justice (DOJ) on Monday. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced plans to bar DOJ grants, which total over $4 billion, to “sanctuary cities.” Implementing such a ban is a distraction for police and it represents a diversion from fixing the excesses of crime policy from prior decades.

There is no legal definition outlining what a “sanctuary city” is. Still, whether calling themselves sanctuary cities or not, many communities have declined to honor Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainers — holds placed on people who otherwise would be released following an arrest or court appearance. Others decline to request immigration status information from anyone stopped or arrested. Still others have declined to permit police to participate in local immigration roundups. Prohibiting DOJ grants to any of these communities only threatens to make real public safety challenges worse.

Currently, there is no federal law requiring local law enforcement to ask about anyone’s immigration status, let alone honor ICE detainers. In fact, many federal courts have held that honoring such detainers with no other probable cause places communities in violation of the 4th Amendment — which bars unreasonable searches, seizures, and arrests. Federal law simply bars states and localities from implementing prohibitions on local police exchanging information with federal immigration authorities. Still, that doesn’t compel police to obtain immigration status, honor detainers, or participate in immigration raids.

There is a good public safety reason for keeping police and sheriff’s deputies out of the immigration business. First, studies show immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native-born citizens. Second, in order for police to be effective, they need to have the cooperation of members of the community — regardless of immigration status. Plain and simple, where people are fearful of deportation, they are less likely to report crimes and cooperate with police. Third, as any local law enforcement agency will tell you, resources are precious. When police attention and time is diverted from real public safety, there are fewer resources for crime prevention and less ability to respond to actual crime. When police are diverted from their mission, communities lose. Additionally, the DOJ announcement places non-cooperating communities at a public safety disadvantage through the potential loss of federal dollars.

At the national level, continued talk linking immigration and crime is a distraction for local law enforcement. Although the nation has experienced years of declining crime rates, some communities need more help than others to effectively respond to serious and violent crime. And, many communities would benefit from more effective use of evidence-based and promising strategies to reduce and prevent crime. Better targeting of DOJ assistance can be a real help. Banning grants for focusing on crime instead of immigration doesn’t help anyone.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.