The Whole Justification for Sanctuary Cities Is Wrong

Data show that immigrants report crime like everyone else.

By Steven A. Camarota and Jessica M. Vaughan on November 25, 2021

National Review, October 25, 2021

Immigration advocates have long asserted that local law-enforcement agencies should not cooperate with federal immigration authorities because doing so would cause immigrants to avoid reporting crimes out of fear of deportation. This justification for “sanctuary” jurisdictions has always been dubious, but now we have data that directly refute it. Starting in 2017, the Department of Justice added a citizenship question to its annual National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), which is the largest and most authoritative survey of crime victims. The 2017–19 NCVS indicates that the whole basis for sanctuary polices is a myth; it turns out that crimes against immigrants are reported to police at rates that match or often exceed those for crimes against the U.S.-born.

The NCVS is specifically designed to measure the number and nature of criminal victimizations, whether they are reported to police, and the reasons for not reporting, if applicable. Immigrants, typically referred to by the government as the foreign-born, are all those living in the United States who were not U.S. citizens at birth — naturalized citizens, green-card holders, guest workers, foreign students, and illegal immigrants. Noncitizens would include all of the above except naturalized citizens. Whether we looked at all crimes, violent crimes, property crimes, or serious violent and property crimes together, the survey shows that immigrants report crimes to police at rates that are at least as high as do the U.S.-born.

Among serious crimes, generally prosecuted as felonies, 62 percent of those committed against immigrants were reported to police, as were 60 percent of serious crimes against noncitizens. Both percentages are significantly higher than the 53 percent reporting rate of crimes against the native-born. Immigrants and specifically noncitizens are also significantly more likely to report serious violent crimes — rape, sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault — than are the native-born. Even violent felonies against immigrant women — including noncitizen women, who are thought to be especially reluctant to come forward — were reported to police at significantly higher rates than were similar crimes against U.S.-born women.

Noncitizen Hispanics theoretically should be the most fearful of police because a large share are in the country illegally. In government surveys such as the NCVS, we estimate that roughly two thirds of noncitizen Hispanics are either illegal immigrants or live with one. And yet the NCVS shows that 57 percent of serious crimes against noncitizen Hispanics were reported to police, compared with 53 percent for the U.S.-born.

The survey also queries victims about the reasons they did not report crimes, and very few give an answer suggesting that they fear authorities or deportation. For every major category of crime, only about 1 percent of immigrant victims who did not report the crime said that the reason was that biased police would harass them or cause them trouble or that they were advised not to report it. As with the U.S.-born, the top reasons immigrants give for not reporting crimes are “police wouldn’t think it was important enough, wouldn’t want to be bothered or get involved” and “minor or unsuccessful crime, small or no loss, recovered property.”

The NCVS is not ideal for comparing crime-reporting rates across jurisdictions with different policies on ICE cooperation. The sample of immigrants is relatively small, and specific cities and states are not identified in the public data. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that, relative to the rate of reporting crime against U.S.-born victims, the overall rate of reporting crime against immigrant victims has not been suppressed by the routine cooperation that exists throughout most of the country.

To the extent that we can compare different parts of the country, we found no evidence that the level of such cooperation affects immigrant reporting of crime. In fact, in smaller communities in the American South, which tend to cooperate the most with immigration authorities, crimes against immigrants are reported to police at significantly higher rates than crimes in larger cities in the Northeast and West, where most sanctuary jurisdictions are concentrated.

With no evidence that immigrants are less likely to report crimes, the primary objection to cooperation between police and ICE appears to be invalid. However, the public-safety benefits of such cooperation are real. When local officers and ICE are able to share information, criminal aliens who are causing problems can be identified and deported instead of returned to the streets. Federal immigration authorities can remove criminal aliens, even when witness intimidation is a problem, as it often is with gang members, because deportation typically does not require witness testimony. None of this can happen if police are not allowed to work with ICE.

Anti-enforcement advocates often assert that removing criminal aliens need not be a priority because immigrants as a whole do not have high crime rates. Whether or not that is true, it misses the point. Whatever the crime rate of immigrants as a group, it in no way justifies sanctuary policies that shield known criminal aliens from deportation, allowing them to remain in our communities. Moreover, we can say with certainty that noncitizens who are already in jail have high crime rates. Purposefully releasing them, as sanctuary jurisdictions do, even after ICE has asked that they be held until they can be picked up, is outrageous.

Despite the Biden administration’s abandonment of nearly all interior enforcement, immigration laws are not obsolete statutes that should be ignored. Congress has enacted limits on immigration for good reasons, including to reduce job competition for the poorest and least-educated Americans and to avoid burdening public coffers. Local law enforcement has a role to play in the important national goal of enforcing immigrant laws. Because ICE does not patrol the streets and jails, it needs the cooperation of local authorities. They should not hesitate to work with ICE out of unfounded concern that this will undermine trust in immigrant communities.