Skip to main content

Trump Claims Sanctuary Cities Are Havens for Violent Criminals — Research Suggests He’s Wrong

Given how many mayors of major cities have pledged to defy the president’s mandate, a prolonged, highly public battle with local leaders may be coming.

By Jared Keller


Los Angeles. (Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

Earlier this week, President Donald Trump signed an executive order targeting so-called “sanctuary cities,” metropolitan governments that actively minimize their cooperation with state and federal law enforcement agents on immigration issues, TheAtlantic reports. Local officials in sanctuary cities refuse to release illegal aliens to federal immigration authorities for deportation: According to a federal compliance report published by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, nearly 69 out of 168 counties (encompassing 11 million illegal immigrants) refuse federal requests (not mandates) to incarcerate suspects based solely on their immigration status.

Trump’s order, which accuses sanctuary jurisdictions of “willfully violat[ing]” federal immigration laws, would prevent defiant cities from receiving any federal funding “except as mandated by law,” a prohibition that would cost nearly 200 sanctuary jurisdictions across the nation up to nearly $650 billion in essential federal funds, according to a Bloomberg analysis. But, for the Trump administration, that’s a small price to pay for “enhancing public safety in the interior of the United States.”

If Trump wants to ensure that federal laws are enforced, he’ll have to send in the National Guard.

“These jurisdictions have caused immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our Republic,” Trump argued. “We’re going to strip federal grant money from the sanctuary cities and states that harbor illegal immigrants,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said at his daily briefing on Wednesday following Trump’s executive order.

There’s a big problem with the Trump administration’s hard stance on illegal crime — much like the fictional wave of violence that gave his “law and order” campaign purpose, it doesn’t really exist. When taken alongside his authorization of that infamous border wall, this latest legislation only bolsters his false narrative of a country overrun with criminal aliens.

Sure, there are some high-profile incidents in which local law enforcement may have prevented a horrible crime: At least three of the 9/11 hijackers were pulled over for traffic stops in the weeks leading up to the attacks. But, on a broader scale, research suggests immigrants aren’t more prone to criminal behavior in the first place. As Pacific Standard’s Elena Gooraynoted in May of 2016, a 2000 report from the National Criminal Reference Service found that foreign-born residents were generally less likely to engage in criminal activity compared to native-born Americans.

Indeed, a 2013 study found that immigrants in sanctuary cities are even less likely to engage in violent criminal activity. Undocumented immigrants may account for 9.2 percent of federal murder convictions, but that’s a tiny proportion of overall violent crime in the U.S. Even the other major terrorist attacks cited by Republican politicians like Senator Pat Toomey — the Boston Marathon bombers, San Bernardino shooters, and Orlando attacker — don’t follow Trump’s narrative (Politifact notes one San Bernardino shooter was born in Chicago, and the Orlando attacker was from New York).

The Trump administration likely knows this. Just consider this provision to the president’s Wednesday executive order:

To better inform the public regarding the public safety threats associated with sanctuary jurisdictions, the Secretary … [shall] make public a comprehensive list of criminal actions committed by aliens and any jurisdiction that ignored or otherwise failed to honor any detainers with respect to such aliens.

But there are already problems ahead for the Trump administration’s war on sanctuary cities. The mayors of New York and Los Angeles, among other sanctuary cities, have vocally vowed to resist full compliance with Trump’s immigration authorities despite the threat to their funding. According to a Reuters analysis, the top 10 sanctuary cities in the country themselves could face an immediate loss of nearly $2.27 billion, funding that’s allocated for everything from public schools to road maintenance to local policing and community health care.

“This is going to be very destructive to this city, and it’s also immoral,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement on Wednesday. According to Bloomberg, the city is home to nearly 500,000 undocumented immigrants — and of its $84 billion budget, nearly 10 percent comes from federal disbursements. “We’re going to defend all of our people regardless of where they come from, regardless of their immigration status,” de Blasio added. “We’re going to do all that we can with the powers of New York City to protect them.”

De Blasio and his fellow mayors may have the law on their side. Sanctuary cities are notoriously hard to define: A sanctuary jurisdiction is not a broad legal status, but a function of a city’s unique policy approach to accommodating its own local population of illegal immigrants (the state of California, for example, passed legislation preventing jails from holding immigrants under federal law, per the New York Times). Compliance will be a long, torturous process for Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the other organs of the federal bureaucracy beset with legal issues, and that’s not even considering the courts. Given how many mayors of major cities have pledged to actively defy the president’s mandate, a prolonged, highly public battle with local leaders may cost the seemingly Teflon president political traction with the American public.

More importantly, Trump’s executive order comes with two potential constitutional challenges, according to George Mason University law professor Illya Somin. First, Trump can’t drop a blanket set of conditions onto a patchwork of state and federal funding schemes: Somin writes that the government “may not impose conditions on grants to states and localities unless the conditions are ‘unambiguously’ stated in the text of the law,” and that’s a process that requires Congress. Second, well, it’s unconstitutional: “Commandeering” state and local law enforcement agencies to enforce federal law without their express cooperation is a violation of the 10th Amendment. If Trump wants to ensure that federal laws are enforced, he’ll have to send in the National Guard.

Writing in New York magazine, Ed Kilgore quips that Trump’s assault on sanctuary cities is part of a grand policy strategy to encourage record “self-deportation” numbers among undocumented aliens. There may be a kernel of ironic truth there. After all, more Mexicans were fleeing the U.S. than entering it as of 2015, according to the Pew Research Center. If the goal is to make undocumented Americans feel as unsafe as possible, the Trump administration’s doing a sound job — and it’s up to local mayors to keep them safe against the long arm of the federal government.