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What Happens When Local Police Get Involved in Immigration Enforcement?

The Trump administration wants state and local officials to work with them on immigration enforcement. An expert weighs in on why that’s not a good idea.
Police officers search a car at Los Angeles International Airport. (Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

Police officers search a car at Los Angeles International Airport. (Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

Yesterday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions doubled down on the president’s promise to “cancel all federal funding to sanctuary cities” in his first 100 days. Any jurisdiction interested in receiving grants from the Department of Justice will have to certify its compliance with federal immigration laws, Sessions announced, specifically citing U.S. Code Section 1373, which essentially protects information sharing between local and federal officials.

“Unfortunately, some states and cities have adopted policies designed to frustrate the enforcement of our immigration laws,” Sessions said. “Such policies cannot continue…. They make our nation less safe by putting dangerous criminals back on our streets.”

For most of America’s history, the responsibility of immigration enforcement fell largely on the federal government. But in the mid-1990s, federal agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement began developing partnerships with local police departments based on the flawed premise that undocumented immigrants were more likely to be criminals. (In reality, immigrants across the United States are less likely to engage in violent criminal activity, according to multiplestudies.)

Contrary to Sessions’ claims that sanctuary cities make communities less safe, research shows that local police involvement in immigration can actually make communities less safe. Local police departments across the U.S. have recognized that fact, and have pushed back against federal partnerships: Since the ’90s, at least 42 percent of local police departments have implemented policies limiting officers’ ability to become involved in enforcing immigration law, according to recent research by Stephanie Kent, an associate professor of sociology and criminology at Cleveland State University.

Pacific Standard spoke with Kent, who studies how the power of police varies across communities, about her research on local departments’ immigration policies.

For local departments that have official immigration policies, what do those policies look like?

Many of these policies said something to the effect of: Immigration is a federal police power, so it’s not really our job as a local police department to be in the business of stopping people and questioning their immigration status, partly because that could lead to ethnic profiling very easily. We saw that, over time, there have been more departments that have added these written policies to the manuals they have for their officers.

What kind of cities typically have policies like this?

The ones that don’t have these policies tend to be the cities where there’s high unemployment, which fits in with some of the fears that the public has about unauthorized immigrants coming and taking jobs away from U.S. citizens. The other way of saying that is, in cities where there’s a lot of unemployment, those are cities where the local police are probably more interested in finding and detaining and deporting unauthorized immigrants. The other thing that we found is that cities with highly segregated blocks of Hispanic residents did not have these policies to stop their officers from putting their foot into immigration matters. Part of that goes with the ideas that Sessions is saying right now — this fear that unauthorized immigrants are a huge criminal threat. So if you have a lot of Hispanics in these densely segregated areas in the city, then [the idea is that] we should have police that are unfettered, they don’t have a lot of restrictions on what they can do.

Does giving local police the discretion to get involved in immigration enforcement actually make communities safer?

From a criminological standpoint, those plans are really unfounded because research suggests that unauthorized immigrants actually have lower crime rates than U.S. citizens, partly because they’re afraid to commit crimes because then they would be found out and deported. Crime rates are the lowest among first-generation immigrants, they go up a little higher for second-generation immigrants, but people who are coming right over from other countries have the lowest crime rate because they’re trying to assimilate into U.S. society, they’re trying to be citizens, and they tend not to break the law. Some of these very highly segregated immigrant communities are actually safer.

Why wouldn’t local authorities want to work with the federal government to enforce immigration law?

There were efforts in the ’90s, programs where the federal government tried to deputize local departments to work with federal agencies to enforce federal immigration law. But local departments have good reason not to. It takes a lot of time and effort, and, in the cities where you have a lot of immigrants, you don’t really want to alienate a large sector of the people you police; then they won’t cooperate with police. If you alienate entire sections of your city, you’re going to have more crime. People aren’t going to trust the police, they’re going to be unwilling to call the police when they see crime or when they’re victimized by crime, and it’s going to make policing harder for those local departments.

You found that state trends — like strict, anti-immigrant laws in Arizona — weren’t very likely to influence policy of local departments. Does that give us any insight into how local departments might respond to this federal pressure?

Law enforcement has always been a local matter. Since the beginning of police departments, it has always been a city-to-city decision on hiring, on training, on culture even. That’s one reason why I think we didn’t see much of an effect of state law on the local departments, because the local departments have always done their own thing. But it’s unclear how much funding is really going to be taken away from local departments, and if that is going to be enough of a threat for them to work more with the federal government.

In the law that Sessions references, 1373, really all that language says is that state, local, and federal agencies cannot prevent each other from getting information about somebody’s immigration status. It doesn’t say anything about local agencies having to aggressively enforce immigration law. So at the present there’s nothing requiring local departments to enforce immigration law. [But] if the federal government were to ask them, they might have to give over information that they know about immigration status.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.