The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
February 27, 2017

Targeting undocumented immigrants won't increase public safety

February 27, 2017

On February 20, the newly confirmed secretary of homeland security, John Kelly, issued two memoranda establishing new policies and escalating current ones to implement the Trump administration’s immigration priorities. In particular, the heads of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and US Customs and Border Protection are directed to expedite expansion of the 287(g) program, which allows the federal government to grant state and local law enforcement agencies broad authority to enforce federal immigration law.

This administration’s focus on enforcing immigration law stems from thoroughly perpetuated myths binding immigration to national security, crime, and terrorism. Enhancing public safety and reducing violence are respectable endeavors, but policies that target undocumented immigrants in the name of these objectives are not grounded in evidence.

Immigration is not a driver of crime or violence

Evidence reveals that increased immigration is consistently linked to decline in violent and property crime. While it may be politically expedient to cherry-pick high-profile incidents like the tragic death of Kathryn Steinle, such events are not evidence that undocumented immigrants pose a disproportionate threat to our communities.

Immigrants are not more likely to commit crime than their native-born counterparts and actually maintain lower levels of involvement in crime throughout their lives. Expanding the 287(g) program is an irresponsible and irrational focus of attention and resources on a political issue that does not represent a major cause of violence.

Involving local law enforcement in immigration enforcement corrodes police-community relations   

Successful policing requires productive communication and partnership with the community. The International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Major Cities Chiefs Association emphasize that good relationships with immigrant communities are vital to protecting the public.

When local police are deputized to enforce federal immigration law, undocumented residents fear contact with law enforcement. The severe chilling effect of 287(g) enforcement deters residents from seeking help from police when they become victims and from aiding law enforcement efforts by reporting crime, cooperating with investigations, and participating in the criminal justice system as witnesses.

Case in point: Maricopa County, Arizona

The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MSCO) zealously pursued 287(g) immigration enforcement under former sheriff Joe Arpaio.

During that time, violent crime spiked and basic law enforcement responsibilities were forced to the periphery. Police response times to life-threatening emergencies slowed dramatically. Many cases of armed robbery, aggravated assault, and sexual assault went uninvestigated. Arrest rates for cases that were investigated plunged. An enormous backlog of outstanding warrants accumulated. A Department of Justice investigation of MSCO found rampant racial profiling, unlawful stops, detentions, arrests, and use of retaliation.

The focus on immigrants diverted attention and resources away from basic law enforcement functions, and the community suffered the consequences. Maricopa County residents voted Arpaio out of office in November 2016.

The abuses uncovered in Maricopa County are not isolated incidents. Reports from 287(g) jurisdictions across the country indicate patterns of misconduct.

In Tennessee, a heavily pregnant woman who was pulled over for a routine traffic violation and subsequently arrested for driving without a license (a misdemeanor that usually results in a citation and no arrest) was shackled to a hospital bed while in labor and then separated from her newborn son for two days, resulting in health problems for both. The Department of Justice also uncovered unconstitutional racial profiling in a North Carolina county’s use of 287(g).

The Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office found that 287(g) lacks appropriate performance measures and that supervision and oversight of its implementation was often insufficient.

What does work?

Heavy investment in law enforcement may be a sensible approach for an administration principally concerned with crime and safety. But the value of such investment is lost when efforts are concentrated on programs like the 287(g) agreements, which are at best ineffective and at worst severely damaging.

Resources should prioritize enforcement and prevention tactics that are grounded in evidence, like promising community policing strategies that many departments have employed to facilitate positive and productive relationships with stakeholders in their jurisdictions. Policy should support humane and innovative law enforcement efforts to guard our communities from violence and reduce crime.

A one-year-old from El Salvador clings to his mother after she turned themselves in to Border Patrol agents on December 7, 2015 near Rio Grande City, Texas. They had just crossed the U.S.-Mexico border into Texas. The mother said she brought her son on the 24-day journey from El Salvador to escape violence in the Central American country. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images.

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