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Sanctuary Cities and Crime Rates

Quentin is a Graduate of Clemson Universities Political Science Department, graduating in 2021 with a minor in Sociology.

Do Sanctuary Cities Have Higher Crime Rates?

This article aims to determine whether or not crime rates are higher in sanctuary cities as opposed to non-sanctuary, through literature review and crime statistics analysis.

There has been debate in America over sanctuary cities for years but especially since the election of Donald Trump in 2016. While previous administrations have followed a fairly identical course; the Trump administration has brought these cities and their relationship to federal immigration to the political forefront. The debate is by in large a partisan one with most critics of sanctuary policy being Republicans. There has been debate if these cities should still receive funding from the Federal Government because of their sanctuary status. Now as of 2020 there are now eleven sanctuary states (not counties) which all have Democratic governors. I want to get past the partisanship and look at the data and what it says about crime rates in these cities. In my research I will determine whether crime rates are higher in Sanctuary Cities by looking at crime rates in sanctuary vs non sanctuary cities. In order to provide mayors and other local officials with the data so they can make effective policy decisions. This research is not an attempt to prove one side correct but to analyze critic’s concerns vs the data. No city should make policy based on conjecture or without some use of data and this research can aid urban areas. Can urban areas under sanctuary status exist without raising crime rates?

Since the first sanctuary city of Berkeley, California in 1971 there has been a contentious debate around the legality of these cities' practices under federal law. Sanctuary cities or counties are jurisdictions where local law enforcement is limited in enforcing federal immigration law. This is the definition of a sanctuary city according to ICE, “a city or police department that has passed a resolution or ordinance expressly forbidding city or law enforcement officials from inquiring into immigration status and/or cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement” (ICE). Supreme Court cases and other law interpretations have allowed cities the right to not follow federal warrants. This issue has brought the relationship of cities in the federal system to the forefront of urban political discord. Tied to this issue is whether or not these cities are more crime-ridden than their counterparts. In this report data will be analyzed to determine whether crime rates are higher in sanctuary cities or the same or lower. The research aims to validate or invalidate the public opinion that sanctuary cities are high crime areas. The data from policy research groups and governmental agencies data will be reviewed. Academic journals on sanctuary city and crime will also be a part of the literature review. It is important to understand the origin of sanctuary cities as way of a locality protecting a vulnerable group of people. For example, the original sanctuary city Berkeley, California passed a measure protecting sailors who were avoiding service in the Vietnam War in 1971. These protections are still in place today for undocumented immigrants. Another reason for granting sanctuary status to certain countries is during a time of war or unrest. In 1985 Madison, Wisconsin passed a resolution making it a sanctuary city for Guatemalans and El Salvadorians. These people were fleeing a violent country where deportation could cost them their lives, so cities offered them a refuge (O’Brien et al. 2019). Why are critics claiming that sanctuary cities are high crime areas? In my research I will determine whether crime rates are higher in these areas by looking at crime rates in sanctuary vs non sanctuary cities. Can urban areas under sanctuary status exist without raising crime rates?

A major court case that many jurisdictions point to as how they legally can refuse to follow ICE warrants is “Galarza v. Szalcyk”. These warrants are known as detainers and the Federal Court of Appeals ruled these are not binding documents that localities have to enforce like other arrest warrants. They are at odds with these localities it just sets the precedent that nobody will be held past the time they would otherwise have been held barring the detainer. Because of this Federal Appeals Court ruling cities have become the decision makers on how federal immigration enforcement will be carried out in their localities. This is very crucial to urban politics across the country because it deals with the status of cities in the federal system and what jurisdiction they have. Mayors and other county officials have passed ordinances in direct opposition to federal agencies orders declaring them not official judicial warrants. The battle between ICE and these cities is shown in this quote from Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, “Operation Rise is proof-positive that we will never back down from enforcing the rule of law, with or without the cooperation of local political leaders,”( ICE arrests 176 in Operation Rise sanctuary city crackdown). Operation Rise was an ICE ran mission in Philadelphia, Denver, New York. Washington, Baltimore and Seattle where they arrested 176 people. All these places have sanctuary status and these operations show how complicated the federal system can be. As federal agents still can enforce laws in these cities and not follow the localities orders.

An important follow up question to my research question is why would urban areas becoming sanctuaries if they are increasing crime. Mayors and city councils do not want to make their cities less desirable to live in and push out their tax base. These localities believe this sanctuary status actually reduces crime or at least keeps it the same. The major benefit from this being that these immigrant groups are now more likely to come forward to report crimes. Another reason for granting sanctuary status to certain countries is during a time of war or unrest. This makes sense intuitively that immigrants who do not fear deportation are more likely to call the police. After understanding the preliminary thinking behind urban policy makers who have implemented these laws then can the data be reviewed to see what it shows. In order to analyze crime data in sanctuary vs non-sanctuary cities I looked at people who had compiled data comparing similar cities. In order to make sure the cities that are being compared were similar the studies I looked at used several methods. The Gonzalez Obrien study uses a casual inference matching strategy in order to make sure key variables matched between the cities other than the sanctuary status (Gonzalez Et al. 15). The second study I evaluated is the Center for American Progress’ study which used Coursed Exact Meaning in order to match sanctuary vs non sanctuary cities. The third study I looked at used, “data from the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) from 1999 to 2010, this paper tracks how much crime rates change before and after the implementation of the policy. Then, with a difference-in-differences (DID) approach, I exploit the differential timing of the policy implementation across sanctuary cities to identify the causal effect of sanctuary policies on crime” ( Sanctuary Cities and Crime 3). These three studies make up for the gaps of the others and provide a fair assessment of similar sanctuary and non-sanctuary cities. The Center for American Progress is the only one to make the claim that crime rates are lower in these localities. The other two studies do not make this determination, but this makes sense because different cities were compared in all three. An important takeaway from each study is that none of them show higher crime rates.

An institute that has done extensive research on sanctuary cities is the Cato Institute. They are a libertarian thinktank which differs from CAP which is connected to democratic party. This shows across political ideology this is general consensus when crime data is reviewed in these cities. Alex Nowrasteh and Andrew Forrester researchers for the institute said this about research, “The complaint over sanctuary jurisdictions is that they result in increased crime, but the limited research on the topic finds no increase in crime in sanctuary jurisdictions relative to non-sanctuary jurisdictions” (Sanctuary Jurisdictions in Florida Do Not Have Higher Crime Rates). Dealing with this limitation of not having a database that tracks crime by immigration status Forrester and Nowrateh examined two sanctuary counties in Florida Alchua and Clay using FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) Return A file to. They then use the county adjacency file from the National Bureau for Economic Research to match these counties with neighboring similar counties so the comparison would be fair. Lastly, they “compute an “adjacent counties” counterfactual crime rate as the sum of all crimes in surrounding counties normalized by their combined population” (Norwasteh and Forrester). The crimes rates in the counties before the study Sanctuary Status was passed were pretty much the same. After reviewing the data, the two formed graphs that showed no major change in crime rates either way. There was no evidence these jurisdictions had higher crime rates, in Alchua county the crime rate was 380 per 100k and in 2017 three years after the anti-detainer policy it had dropped to only 360 which is statistically insignificant.

In my research I did not find evidence of Sanctuary Cities having crime rates than those of their counterparts. After reviewing several studies, I am confident to assert that the criticism that sanctuary cities have higher crime rates is not based in fact or data but only in conjecture. After reviewing similar studies, they all came away with one takeaway is and that is that crime is not higher in these jurisdictions. City officials and others involved in urban politics across America have to have accurate data in order to make these decisions. This is by no means in support of sanctuary cities because one might ask, why would a city make themselves a sanctuary if crime rates stay the same? Usually, a policy has a major benefit, but this outcome is that crime will stay the same. My research led me to realize that these localities are not passing these laws to lower crime but to have a safer community where crime is reported at a higher rate. These urban areas believe immigrants are more likely to call the police and report crime if they are not in fear of deportation. The policy is less about crime and more about community participation in law enforcement. I would say this policy is not for every city. Each locality has to make this choice on whether this policy will have the effect of higher crime reporting amongst immigrant populations. In conclusion, my research found no significant difference between crime rates in sanctuary cities and their counterparts.

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Works Cited

O’Brien, Benjamin Gonzalez, et al. “The Politics of Refuge: Sanctuary Cities, Crime, and Undocumented Immigration.” Urban Affairs Review, vol. 55, no. 1, 2017, pp. 3–40., doi:10.1177/1078087417704974.

Nowrasteh , Alex, and Andrew C Forrester . “Sanctuary Jurisdictions in Florida Do Not Have Higher Crime Rates.” Cato Institute, 29 Mar. 2019,

Gearty, Robert. “ICE Arrests 176 in Operation Rise Sanctuary City Crackdown.” Fox News, FOX News Network, 16 Oct. 2020,

Wong, Tom K. “The Effects of Sanctuary Policies on Crime and the Economy.” Center for American Progress, 26 Jan. 2017,

Paraiso, Nick, et al. “The Connection of Sanctuary Cities and Crime.” Chicago Policy Review, 15 Sept. 2020,

Nick Miroff, Devlin Barrett. “ICE Preparing Targeted Arrests in ‘Sanctuary Cities,’ Amplifying President’s Campaign Theme.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 30 Sept. 2020,

Office, Mayor’s. “Sanctuary.” Sanctuary City — City of Berkeley, CA, 2017,

Otsu, Yuki. “Sanctuary City and Crime.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 23 Sept. 2019, doi:10.2139/ssrn.3453413.

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