During its first ten months in office, the Trump administration has made aggressive immigration enforcement a priority. One of the areas in which this approach was crystalized was around so-called sanctuary jurisdictions—communities across the country that have adopted ordinances that explicitly curtail cooperation with the federal government regarding immigration enforcement.

The Trump administration has been threatening to defund sanctuary cities since taking office, and within its first week issued an executive order seeking to withhold federal grants until jurisdictions fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities. The rationale that guides the government’s approach to this issue is that local jurisdictions that have some form of sanctuary policies in place “have more violent crime on average than those that do not.” That claim, however, is not supported by existing research.

According to a recently published extensive literature review, there is no evidence supporting the assertion that the implementation of sanctuary policies encourages crime. And despite the over-politicized public debate surrounding sanctuary cities and its connection with criminal activity, only four empirical studies have systematically analyzed the relationship between limited cooperation policies and crime. None of these studies, which vary in their analytical scope as well as techniques utilized, support the claim that sanctuary jurisdictions are more crime-prone than non-sanctuaries.

Additionally, the review of the literature revealed that there is notable variation in sanctuary policies, ranging from ordinances that explicitly curb cooperation with immigration authorities to policies that aim to facilitate immigrant integration at the local level. Because of this variation, politicians tend to conflate a range of very different policies when they discuss sanctuary cities.

It is also important to note that sanctuary policies are to a large degree the result of a tension between the federal government’s responsibility to enforce immigration laws and the local government’s commitment to protect the well-being of the residents in their jurisdictions. Localities may also adopt these policies based on concerns regarding potential civil right violations or financial interest.

In spite of these conclusions, many policymakers continue to blame unauthorized immigrants and punish cities with limited cooperation policies on the basis of public safety concerns. But if those concerns are not backed by clear evidence, what is driving this narrative?

The authors of the aforementioned review suggest that public discourse likely has little to do with crime and safety concerns and more to do with normative preferences of nationhood, deserved membership, and notions of American-ness —in other words, views regarding who is worthy of being part of the nation.

More often than not, policymakers rely on  “rule of law” arguments when trying to justify their pressure on local communities that refuse to collaborate with the federal government on immigration enforcement. However, these color-blind arguments may hide underlying anti-immigrant intentions. Sound policies must be grounded in reliable evidence and genuine community concerns, not prejudice or politics.

Photo by Code for America