A recent executive order by President Trump threatened to withhold federal funds and grants from “sanctuary cities,” communities that refuse to hold people suspected of being undocumented immigrants until U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can take custody of them. A recent Justice Department news release criticized Chicago, New York and other cities for “putting the well-being of criminal aliens before the safety of our citizens.”
The reality, however, is starkly different. The overwhelming majority of American communities are cooperating with ICE. Moreover, among the communities that are not cooperating, some are predominantly Republican — even though the Trump administration’s complaints have focused on mainly Democratic communities.
We have new data on compliance with ICE because the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) forced the government to release the information through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The graph below shows compliance data for 2,522 of the 3,234 counties in the United States (a few states such as Alaska and Rhode Island are missing) in four areas: asking suspects about their citizenship, alerting ICE when potential deportees are found, accepting ICE detainers (agreeing to hold potential deportees until ICE can arrange a transfer), and allowing ICE to interrogate inmates.
As you can see, complaints about an epidemic of sanctuary are overblown. The vast majority of counties cooperate with ICE in all areas except detainers. (Some local police forces object to the cost of housing potential deportees or are unwilling to hold individuals who are cleared of non-immigration charges.) In total, 1,900 counties fully cooperate with ICE, and only 48 refuse to cooperate in three or more areas.
The ILRC data also demonstrates the partisan bias in the Trump administration’s naming-and-shaming efforts. Nine communities have been cited by Attorney General Jeff Sessions as providing sanctuary: Chicago, Denver, Las Vegas, Miami-Dade, Milwaukee, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco. These communities have one thing in common: they are reliable Democratic strongholds. The ILRC data shows that one of these targets (Milwaukee) is actually fully cooperative, and three (Las Vegas, Denver, Miami-Dade) only refuse detainers.
Moreover, while Sessions is correct in saying that Chicago, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco are providing some level of sanctuary to the undocumented, his attacks fail to mention reliably Republican communities that are doing the same thing.
Consider Tulare County in California, a county with a substantial undocumented population, where almost 60 percent of voters supported Donald Trump in 2016. Local police in Tulare refuse detainers, do not ask about citizenship, and alert ICE only for potential deportees arrested for serious crimes such as drug trafficking and homicide. As the chief of the Visalia Police Department put it recently, “Our role is to enforce the law regardless of immigration status. It’s not our practice. We don’t ask immigration status.” Despite this very visible defiance of ICE policy, Tulare has escaped criticism from Sessions.
This debate about local immigration enforcement is unlikely to go away. Immigration policies are set nationally but implemented locally, with community police and sheriffs often the first point of contact between government and the undocumented. Even with the Trump administration’s plans to expand ICE, the agency’s enforcement arm will have only a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands of police and sheriffs throughout America.
Despite the Trump administration’s complaints, a central fact is clear: Most communities are not providing sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants.
William Bianco is professor of political science at Indiana University.
Edan Gomez recently graduated from Indiana University with a BA in political science.
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