The Connection of Sanctuary Cities and Crime

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In the 1980s, churches across the United States sought to provide shelter for refugees fleeing violence in El Salvador and Guatemala. The U.S. supported the regimes of these countries, and it did not want to provide political asylum to their refugees. Nevertheless, religious communities offered them protection in open defiance of the federal government. Since then, the sanctuary city movement has continued its practice of non-compliance: sanctuary cities today forbid law enforcement officials from inquiring about immigration status or cooperating with federal agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Supporters argue that law enforcement should not be based on immigration status alone. Opponents claim that these cities breed crime and that “our cities should be sanctuaries for Americans—not for criminal aliens.”

But do sanctuary cities actually foster crime? In their recent study, Benjamin Gonzalez O’Brien, Loren Collingwood and Stephen Omar El-Khatib found that the passage of sanctuary laws had no effect on crime in the cities that implemented them. Moreover, they found no perceptible difference in violent crime, property crime or rape between sanctuary and non-sanctuary cities.

The researchers compiled data on sanctuary cities from the National Immigration Law Center. They limited their analysis to cities that passed sanctuary laws during or after 2002 to account for any effects that 9/11 may have had on immigration policies and perceptions. Their data on violent crime, property crime and rape were gathered from the FBI.

First, O’Brien et al. looked at individual sanctuary cities and compared crime before and after the passage of sanctuary laws. They found that the before and after differences in crime were not statistically different from zero. In other words, the passage of sanctuary laws had no effect on cities’ crime rates.

Second, the researchers sought to determine if there were any significant differences in crime rates between sanctuary cities and non-sanctuary cities. To isolate the effect of sanctuary laws, however, they could not simply compare a sanctuary city to any non-sanctuary city. This would be an unbalanced comparison: differences between the two might be due to underlying socioeconomic factors instead of sanctuary laws.

Instead, a genetic matching algorithm was used to pair sanctuary cities with non-sanctuary cities in the same geographic area. The algorithm worked to ensure that a sanctuary city and its paired, non-sanctuary neighbor were similar in terms of population, race/ethnicity, education, economic indicators, and residents’ citizenship status. Thus, the only consequential difference between the two paired cities should have been the presence of sanctuary laws.

O’Brien et al. found no significant differences in violent crime, property crime and rape between sanctuary and non-sanctuary cities. Still, they recognized the possible imperfections of the matching algorithm. Though their program matched a sanctuary city with a relatively comparable non-sanctuary one, the characteristics between the pairs were not perfectly balanced. For example, the average percentage of foreign-born residents for sanctuary cities was 17.9 percent, whereas for non-sanctuary cities it was 16.6 percent.

In an attempt to boost confidence in their initial findings, O’Brien, Collingwood and El-Khatib utilized a multivariate regression. This analysis showed which variables were strongly associated with crime rates in these cities. Poverty was associated with higher levels of violent crime; unemployment was associated with higher levels of property crime. Sanctuary status was not associated with any of the crime variables observed. Even when looking at how sanctuary status interacted with variables that might contribute to sanctuary laws in the first place—like percentage of foreign-born residents without citizenship or percentage of foreign-born Latin Americans—sanctuary status was not a good determinant of crime rates.

Though the research showed that sanctuary cities were no more dangerous to Americans than non-sanctuary ones, data is only one facet of the policy making process. Political differences remain important considerations as well, and until those ideological disagreements can be negotiated, the sanctuary city debate will continue to play out.

Article source: O’Brien, Benjamin Gonzalez, Loren Collingwood, and Stephen Omar El-Khatib. “The Politics of Refuge: Sanctuary Cities, Crime, and Undocumented Immigration.” Urban Affairs Review 55, no. 1 (2019): 3-40.

Featured photo: cc/(wildpixel, photo ID: 924927966, from iStock by Getty Images)

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