The Truth about Sanctuary Cities

illegal immigration
Myth: Sanctuary cities are a haven for criminal activity.

Fact: Evidence shows that Sanctuary cities experience less crime and unemployment, and higher median income.

What are Sanctuary Cities?

The idea that sanctuary cities are cities where no immigration laws are enforced (or even where undocumented immigrants are not subject to typical laws in general) combined with politically-motivated rhetoric from the Trump administration and elsewhere have left a misleading impression as to the true nature and effects of sanctuary cities.

While there appears to be no universally agreed upon definition of a sanctuary city, the term generally describes a city that limits cooperation with federal immigration laws. These ‘limits’ come in varying degrees, so it’s really a spectrum in terms of cooperation as opposed to an absolute or either/or status.

A recent study has shown that sanctuary cities are actually safer, as undocumented immigrants are more cooperative and productive in cities where they don’t fear deportation and are more encouraged to participate in local communities. This is the missing (and largely non-intuitive) aspect of sanctuary cities: that they provide an upside that is otherwise missing.

Traditionally, due to fear of deportation, undocumented immigrants may avoid contacting law enforcement to either report their own victimization or avoid reporting suspicious activities, thus leaving repeat criminals relative free reign. In sanctuary cities, undocumented immigrants are more likely to cooperate with law enforcement in these matters which in turn makes communities safer. Likewise, sanctuary cities are less likely to separate family members from one another, meaning these households are more likely to remain intact, making them more economically productive and members less likely to resort to criminal activity.

Sanctuary City Study

A study by University of California-San Diego political scientist Tom K. Wong makes the comparison at the county level and concludes that:

  • Sanctuary counties, compared to their non-sanctuary counterparts experience:
  • 5.5 fewer crimes committed per 10,000 people
  • Higher median household annual income ($4,353 higher)
  • Lower poverty rate (2.3 percent lower), on average
  • Lower unemployment rate (1.1 percent lower)
sanctuary city crime rates facts
Crime Rates in Sanctuary Counties vs Non-Sanctuary Counties . Image Credit: WaPo

From the study:

While the results hold true across sanctuary jurisdictions, the sanctuary counties with the smallest populations see the most pronounced effects.

Altogether, the data suggest that when local law enforcement focuses on keeping communities safe, rather than becoming entangled in federal immigration enforcement efforts, communities are safer and community members stay more engaged in the local economy. This in turn brings benefits to individual households, communities, counties, and the economy as a whole.

Federal prison population statistics

Critics of sanctuary cities have pointed to prison population statistics to argue that studies like those above are incorrect. In reality, the inmate ratio and the study above are perfectly compatible. How? Simple: the federal prison population is a very specific (and small) segment. It’s possible undocumented immigrants to both have over representation in federal prisons and still have lower crime rates than the native born population.

The reason for the high rate of undocumented immigrants in federal prison is that a large proportion of federal crimes take place along the US-Mexican border.  About half of these crimes are immigration-related (illegal crossing and smuggling) along with other common border crimes (drug/weapon smuggling).  Whatever one thinks of these problems, they are not crimes being committed in sanctuary cities.

As Richard Pérez-peña of the New York Times points out:

Opponents of immigration often point out that in federal prisons, a much higher share of inmates, 22 percent, are noncitizens. But federal prisons hold a small fraction of the nation’s inmates, and in many ways, it is an unusual population. About one-third of noncitizen federal inmates are serving time for immigration offenses — usually re-entering the country illegally after being deported — that are not covered by state law.

This is why sources citing the  undocumented immigrant statistics often cite percentages instead of sheer numbers.  Citing “tens of thousands” of undocumented undocumented immigrant inmates  might invite the reader to perform a  simple calculation and realize what a small number this is, relative to the 11-12 million undocumented immigrants currently in the US.  On the other hand, stating that undocumented immigrants only account for 4% of the US population and yet 22% of the federal prison population sounds more significant, masks fact that federal imprisonment is a small percentage of overall imprisonment/incarceration, and is less likely to invite the reader to some simple math.

illegal immigrant crimes

As Alex Nowrasteh, from the CATO Institute writes:

Our headline finding is that both illegal immigrants and legal immigrants have incarceration rates far below those of native-born Americans—at 0.85 percent, 0.47 percent, and 1.53 percent, respectively. Excluding illegal immigrants who are incarcerated or in detention for immigration offenses lowers their incarceration rate to 0.5 percent of their population—within a smidge of legal immigrants. As a result, native-born Americans are overrepresented in the incarcerated population while illegal and legal immigrants are underrepresented, relative to their respective shares of the population.

From a recent Pew Research Report:

Half (50%) of the 165,265 total arrests made [emphasis added] by the federal government in fiscal 2014 – the most recent year for which statistics are available – were for immigration-related offenses [emphasis added], such as crossing the border illegally or smuggling others into the United States. A decade earlier, immigration-related offenses accounted for 28% of all federal arrests.

At the same time, arrests for drug crimes fell from 23% of the total in 2004 to 14% in 2014. Those for supervision violations, such as probation or parole infractions, fell from 17% to 14%. Arrests for property crimes, including fraud and embezzlement, declined from 11% to 8%. And arrests for weapon offenses, such as possession of an unregistered firearm, fell from 7% to 4%.

immigration crimes border
Immigration crimes accounted for half of federal criminal arrests. Image credit: Pew Research Center.


From Judicial Watch:

Of the 61,529 criminal cases initiated by federal prosecutors last fiscal year, more than 40%—or 24,746—were filed in court districts neighboring the Mexican border. This includes Arizona, New Mexico, Southern California, Western Texas and Southern Texas. The two Texas districts each had more than double the convictions of all four federal court districts in the state of New York combined, according to the DOJ report. The Western Texas District had the nation’s heaviest crime flow, with 6,341 cases filed by the feds. In Southern Texas 6,130 cases were filed, 4,848 in Southern California, 3,889 in New Mexico and 3,538 in Arizona.

Not surprisingly, most of the offenses were immigration related [emphasis added]. In fact, 38.6% of all federal cases (23,744) filed last year involved immigration, the DOJ report confirms. Nearly 22% (13,383) were drug related, 19.7% (12,123) were violent crimes and 10.2% (6,300) involved white-collar offenses that include a full range of frauds committed by business and government professionals. This is hardly earth-shattering news in fact, the nation’s southern border region has for years been known for its high crime rate compared to the rest of the country.