Top Justice Official Scoffs at Immigrant Crime Reporting "Chilling Effect"

By Jessica M. Vaughan on June 26, 2017

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week on the growth of the MS-13 gang and the nexus to immigration enforcement failures, a senior Department of Justice official strongly rebuffed assertions by two senators asserting that cooperation between local police and ICE causes immigrants to fear reporting crimes.

This spurious claim, known as the "chilling effect", is the number-one rationale offered by sanctuary jurisdictions to try to justify their non-cooperation policies. The origins of the theory are unknown, but I first noticed it soon after stricter immigration enforcement measures were adopted in the wake of 9/11, particularly as they were applied to aliens from terror-associated countries. I have read every study I can find on this topic and explored voluminous government and law enforcement data to find evidence that crime reporting by immigrants suffers when local police cooperate with ICE, but it just isn't there; this is a myth created by anti-enforcement advocates. The most reliable academic studies and government data show that robust cooperation between locals and feds does not affect crime reporting by immigrants.

Nevertheless, this myth is routinely invoked in any discussion that involves ICE and local law enforcement agencies. The Senate hearing was no different; the "chilling effect" is the only argument available to politicians who want to push back on the common-sense approach of using immigration laws to target MS-13, one of the most brutal gangs ever to operate within our borders and whose membership consists largely of illegal aliens, including many youths who were allowed by the Obama administration to be resettled here as "unaccompanied minors".

Two senators, Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), tried to get the Justice Department witness, Kenneth Blanco, to validate the chilling effect. Instead Blanco pushed back, and essentially told them it was bunk, saying that the fear that immigrants have in reporting crimes is fear of retaliation by the gangs, not fear that contact with police will lead to their deportation. Their exchanges appear below, verbatim.

FRANKEN: Mr. Blanco, in my state of Minnesota, former Minneapolis policy chief Tim Dolan used to say that crime victims are far less likely to dial 911 if they know that the police officer who responds to that call is going to check their papers, and the statistics bear this out.

A 2013 study from the University of Illinois found that 44 percent of Latinos report say they are less likely to call the police even if they are the victim of a crime because they believe officers will use that as an opportunity to check their immigration status. Forty-five percent say they are less likely to volunteer information about crimes they've witnessed. And this isn't even about immigrants, 28 percent of Latinos born in the United States say they are less likely to call the police when they are the victim of a crime because they fear police will ask them about their status or the status of people they know.

This study reports responses of Latinos asked to agree or disagree to a statement on a hypothetical situation that they would be less likely to report a crime for fear they or others would be asked about immigration status in a jurisdiction where police are "involved with immigration enforcement". There was no survey of natives or other ethnic groups to compare responses. In contrast, DOJ statistics and other reliable academic studies analyze actual crime victims and actual crime reporting across ethnic and/or citizenship groups, without using loaded questions.

Now that study was conducted before the 2016 campaign, a campaign in which then candidate Trump made scapegoating immigrants a central pillar of his platform. I would suspect that if this same study were conducted today after this administration has condemned cities that limit their participation in federal immigration enforcement that the study would find that even fewer Latinos are willing to call the police when they are in danger. Mr. Blanco, you've worked in law enforcement for a long time. You've been a US attorney, worked closely with other US attorneys, do you agree that in order to effectively fight MS-13 here in the United States, our police need to have strong relationships with our immigrant communities?

BLANCO: Thank you Senator. Yes, I've been in law enforcement for 28 years. I can tell you that it is very important to have trust and respect with our immigrant communities and for our immigrant communities to have trust and respect for the police. There are a host of reasons why a person may not call the police, and much of it has to do with the fear they have of the violent crime gangs, not so much of the police.And that really, in my 28 years, that has been the fear that they have of perhaps calling the police, not the other way around. They are really scared of them, they are terrified of these people who live in their communities. So its these people in the communities that the MS-13 gang members are targeting, and they are generally the immigrant community that come over. And that's generally what they fear, at least from what I've seen. > (Emphasis added.)

Later, Blanco again pushed back on invocations of the chilling effect, and said that immigrants also feared what would happen when local police released gang members or other perpetrators back into the community, as occurs in sanctuary jurisdictions:

BLUMENTHAL: To make the point that I think perhaps Senator Franken raised, depending on cooperation from victims means that discouraging them may actually have a counterproductive effect. Now you're somebody who's undocumented who is following the law, working hard, playing by the rules, as we often characterize them, may be discouraged from coming forward if they believe they're going to be deported, or if they believe they're going to be arrested. So I'm wondering whether you have suggested or would suggest any changes in policy, this is a question that could be answered by any of you, that would enable you to be more effective in going against these gang members to elicit more cooperation from victims and survivors.

BLANCO: Senator, I'll take that question first. Senator, there are a whole host of reasons I think we talked about a little bit earlier why victims don't want to come forward or witnesses don't want to come forward -

BLUMENTHAL: Fear being one of them -

BLANCO: Well, it could be –

BLUMENTHAL: Maybe a predominant one.

BLANCO: I can tell you that I haven't seen that in my practice in 28 years federally, I have not seen it, I understand that there is some discussion about it. I can tell you about one of the things that does concern them. One thing that concerns them is when they live in a community where these same people have been released back into the community, that worries them, and that prevents them from coming forward. When you have places where people get to hide because law enforcement can't get them. (Emphasis added.)

BLUMENTHAL: That's the fear of retaliation.

BLANCO: By the defendants, by those people who are committing crimes. That's one reason. There are a whole host of reasons.

BLUMENTHAL: Or by their friends and cohorts.

BLANCO: Could be, could be.

BLUMENTHAL: So all the more reason that they need support from law enforcement, and I don't know what can be done. Obviously the witness protection program can't be extended to thousands and thousands of people it's not feasible. But I don't know what more can be done to encourage that cooperation.

BLANCO: Well I can tell you hearings like this are important, and I can tell you having communications with our DHS counterparts is really important. This is, as you can imagine Senator, a lot of our discussion. But what one of the things I think is really important and I'll reiterate this, there is nothing like American law enforcement. There isn't, anywhere in the world. Law enforcement individuals every day talk about how we can help victims and witnesses, so this is something that's always on our mind. And I think that is also translating into these communities as well. (Emphasis added.)

BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.