Oft-Cited Rationale for ‘Sanctuary’ Policies Is a Myth, Study Says

FAIR analyst concludes there is scant credible evidence to support the idea that cooperating with federal immigration officials deters crime reporting

An organization that favors lower levels of immigration is challenging one of the most-repeated justifications for “sanctuary” policies — that cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers deters crime reporting to local authorities.

“There is a complete absence of good data on any of this,” said Matthew O’Brien, author of a Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) report, in which he examined the available evidence and found little to back up the claim.

O’Brien, director of research at FAIR, said the argument offered by sanctuary jurisdictions boils down to a basic premise — that illegal immigrants fear ICE and, therefore, don’t report crimes or otherwise assist local police.

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“Illegal immigrants aren’t afraid of ICE,” he said. “I mean, come on, we have DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] kids chaining themselves to the Capitol, refusing to leave.”

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The report notes that police and prosecutors have no interest in the immigration status of victims, tipsters or witnesses for the state. The only time it might come up, O’Brien told LifeZette, is when authorities have questions about the credibility of a witness, run a background check and discover that the witness has an ICE warrant.

“My experience, is aliens don’t want to talk to police for any reason,” said O’Brien, former chief of the National Security Division (NSD) within the Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate (FDNS) at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS).

He said he believes that has more to do with the experience many immigrants had with repressive governments in their homelands.

“A lot of these people come from places where they don’t trust the police, generally,” he said.

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John Lott, president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, said he has seen little beyond personal stories to support the sanctuary claim.

“I haven’t really seen any evidence that’s the case. It’s anecdotal evidence,” he said.

Lott noted that Hispanics generally are less likely than black residents or white residents to report crimes, and he added that has remained true even as more cities and counties have adopted policies limiting cooperation with ICE.

“That’s been true pretty consistently over time … I haven’t seen any change in the rate over the last 15 years,” he said.

A study in December by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice found that residents of large sanctuary counties — particularly white residents — were less likely to be homicide victims or suffer other violent deaths than their counterparts in non-sanctuary jurisdictions.

Researcher Mike Males, who wrote the report based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, acknowledged that drawing conclusions from complex issues like violent crime is tricky. Immigration policies are one small component of the myriad of factors that cause crime.

Correlation does not prove causation, Males told LifeZette.

Still, Males said, the data show conclusively that homicide rates are lower in sanctuary jurisdictions than in counties and cities that cooperate fully with ICE.

“What we were trying to do is figure out whether there’s any cause for concern about sanctuary cities on their face,” he said.

But Jessica Vaughan, who explored the issue a couple of years ago for the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), said she considers the claim to be a “compete myth.” She said the only studies she found suggesting an increase in crime reporting among immigrants in sanctuary jurisdictions come from suspect surveys that seemed skewed to attain the desired result.

“Sanctuary cities encourage illegal immigration. It’s just another thing that allows illegal immigration to continue.”

“There are some surveys where people were asked if they would be willing to report crimes if police worked closely with ICE,” she said. “I don’t find these to be particularly reliable. They’re leading questions.”

Vaughan, director of policy studies at the think tank, said she first started hearing the argument that cooperating with ICE has a “chilling effect” on crime reporting after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“It started out as a way to justify sanctuary policies,” she said.

But Vaughan said not only would no police department investigate the immigration status of crime victims, ICE agents would not pursue it if it did.

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The only time a victim’s immigration might come up, Vaughan said, is if he or she is in line for a special visa granted by the federal government to illegal immigrants needed to prosecute crimes. Those visas can lead to green cards and permanent residency, so they are quite valuable, she said.

Vaughan said immigration advocates themselves sow fear in immigrant communities by issuing bogus warnings. She noted that she once testified before a congressional panel with a domestic violence counselor who told lawmakers that she no longer would advise illegal immigrant women to report domestic abuse.

“It becomes self-fulfilling,” she said.

Chris Chmielenski, director of content and activism at NumbersUSA, said he does not believe that sanctuary policies encourage crime reporting. But they do attract illegal immigrants, he said.

“Sanctuary cities encourage illegal immigration,” he said. “It’s just another thing that allows illegal immigration to continue.”

PoliZette senior writer Brendan Kirby can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter.

(photo credit, homepage and article images: ICE.gov)

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