“According to one recent poll, 80 percent of Americans believe that cities that arrest illegal immigrants for a crime should be required to turn them over to immigration authorities.”
— Attorney General Jeff Sessions, news briefing, March 27, 2017
“I think the last poll I saw on this issue, on sanctuary cities, was somewhere in the 80 percent that American people don’t support sanctuary cities, they don’t want their tax dollars used to finance people who are in this country illegally.”
— White House press secretary Sean Spicer, news briefing, March 14
On March 20, the Department of Homeland Security began publishing a weekly report of noncitizens released from local custody after facing criminal charges. The reports are required under President Trump’s executive order cracking down on cities, counties and states that adopted such “sanctuary” policies.
Opponents of sanctuary jurisdictions say local and state officials should turn such individuals over to federal immigration officials to figure out whether they should be deported, and cite a poll to say that 80 percent of Americans don’t support sanctuary cities. That seemed quite high, so we looked into this figure.
What are sanctuary policies?
There’s no official definition of “sanctuary.” It generally refers to rules restricting state and local governments from alerting federal authorities about people who may be in the country illegally. Immigration enforcement is a federal responsibility, and state and local law enforcement can decide how much they want to cooperate with the federal government for immigration enforcement. (For more, check out our explainer and this graphic.)
Sanctuary jurisdictions release noncitizen inmates after their criminal case is complete (i.e., they served their time, their charges were dropped or they secured bail). The inmate may or may not be illegally present in the United States.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can issue an “immigration detainer,” which is a request to be notified when a noncitizen is being released at state or local levels. It’s voluntary for these agencies to comply with an ICE detainer. If they comply, they hold noncitizens for up to 48 hours beyond the time they otherwise would have been released. ICE can take custody and figure out whether the inmate should be deported. If ICE doesn’t take action during that 48-hour window, the local or state agency is required to release them.
Agencies in sanctuary jurisdictions decline ICE detainers, whether out of fear it might silence victims or potential witnesses, or because they don’t have enough resources to cooperate. The new weekly DHS report is a list of declined detainers.
Still, some sanctuary jurisdictions cooperate with the federal government if they believe the inmate is a public safety threat.
The ’80 percent’ figure
This widely cited figure comes from a February 2017 national poll of 2,148 registered voters by Harvard University’s Center for American Political Studies and the Harris Poll.
The poll uses an opt-in Web panel sample, which we often warn readers against relying on unless the poll has shown reasonable accuracy in pre-election polls over the years. Harris did not produce final pre-election surveys in 2012 or 2016.
The poll’s question about sanctuary cities reads: “Should cities that arrest illegal immigrants for crimes be required to turn them over to immigration authorities?” Eighty percent of people responded “yes.”
The researchers said it was referring to whether cities should comply with immigration detainers, and did not suggest that undocumented immigrants arrested for crimes should automatically be deported, or that federal funding should be cut off. As we described above, cities have to release inmates if ICE doesn’t take custody after 48 hours.
Notably, this question asks about “crimes.” Criminality is a key factor in the public’s attitude toward immigration, and support for deporting people who commit crimes — especially violent crimes — is high. (For more, read our fact-check on sanctuary cities and crime.)
The use of the word “crime” and “arrests” could bring to mind violent crimes, our friends at PolitiFact noted. But not all these arrests are of noncitizens suspected of violent crimes, or even convicted of any crimes. And some cities still cooperate with federal authorities to prosecute or identify violent criminals.
What do other polls show?
There’s not a lot of research on public opinion of sanctuary cities. But two reliable polls have found mixed public opinion in response to more nuanced questions about sanctuary cities, or when specifically asked about pulling federal funding from sanctuary cities (which the administration wants to do).
A February McClatchy-Marist poll of U.S. adults asked two questions about sanctuary policies:
” ‘Sanctuary City’ is a term used to describe U.S. cities which do not enforce immigration laws and allow undocumented immigrants to live there and, in many cases, receive services. Which comes closer to your opinion? Undocumented immigrants should be deported so there is no reason to have sanctuary cities. Sanctuary cities are needed to provide services to undocumented immigrants while they are in this country.” Response: 41 percent believed there was no reason to have them, and 50 percent believed they are needed.
“Do you support or oppose the federal government cutting funds to cities that provide sanctuary for undocumented immigrants?” Response: 42 percent supported, 53 percent opposed.
A Fox News poll this month of registered voters asked: “Some so-called ‘sanctuary’ cities refuse to assist federal authorities detain and deport illegal immigrants — do you favor or oppose penalizing those cities by taking away their federal funding?” Response: 41 percent supported and 53 percent opposed taking away federal funds from sanctuary cities.
(A huge thank you to Washington Post’s polling manager Scott Clement for vetting and interpreting the polls.)
The Bottom Line
There’s no perfect polling question, and we recognize sanctuary policies and immigration detainers are not easily distilled into one question. It’s clear that public opinion on sanctuary policies varies based on how you ask the question, and what exactly you ask about such policies. Criminality is a major factor, so questions that involve “crime” and “arrests” may elicit stronger responses against sanctuary policies.
Americans’ attitudes are far more varied and complex on this issue than Spicer’s definitive claim that “80 percent” of Americans “don’t support sanctuary cities, they don’t want their tax dollars used to finance people who are in this country illegally.” The administration should not necessarily think that such a large percentage of Americans support its restrictions on sanctuary cities.
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