How local policy matters for immigrants

March 17, the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) sent a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas asking him to end partnerships between Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and local police departments. The letter notes that the partnerships are “destroying community trust” because “Latinos hesitate to report crime to police out of fear that police would investigate the immigration status of their family or community members.”

While upsetting, it makes sense that immigrants fear coming forward to report crime or suspicious activity in their neighborhood. In 1995 only about 35,000 U.S.-born adults lived with parents who had illegally immigrated. In 2016, the number had risen to 975,000. And in 2018, the Pew Research Center reported even higher numbers of U.S.-born adults living with their undocumented parents. Calling the police could lead to questions about the immigration status of at least some of the household members, making immigrants hesitant to report crime.

That hesitancy to come forward about crime occurs when immigrants know that their local police force cooperates with ICE. This correlation was shared by the LEAP letter to Secretary Mayorkas. Citing a 2013 report, LEAP said that 44 percent “of Latinos hesitate to report crime to police for fear that police would investigate the immigration status of their family or community members.”

Partnerships between ICE and local police departments were put in place to promote public safety. For example, the 287(g) program authorizes officers from local police departments to perform some of the functions of internal immigration enforcement. Proponents of the 287(g) program argue that it acts as a “force multiplier” in arresting and detaining undocumented immigrants with criminal charges. However, research shows that these partnerships are ineffective at improving public safety.

There is certainly a need for law enforcement to go after dangerous criminals, but that is true regardless of the person’s immigration status. In contrast to a policy that casts a wide net, research shows that immigration enforcement is best for public safety when it directly targets the most serious offenders. In addition, local police departments do more for public safety when they work with immigrant communities so that people trust the police and feel comfortable coming forward to report crime. The good news is that many Sheriffs and local policymakers already see this trend.

We need immigration enforcement for public safety

Everyone wants safe communities. Identifying and arresting criminals convicted of serious crimes like rape or murder is essential in ensuring that people can live at ease. The only questions are how best to go about making streets safe for everyone.

There are two policies, the 287(g) program, and Secure Communities, that aim to make communities safe. The 287(g) program gives members of the police force the authority to arrest undocumented immigrants, essentially taking on responsibilities of an immigration enforcement officer. While the Secure Communities program doesn’t authorize police officers to enforce immigration laws, it results in immigrants being detained by ICE after being arrested and booked into jail. Secure Communities operates by comparing the booking information, such as fingerprints, to an FBI database. If there is a match, then ICE is notified and can choose to begin the process for deporting the immigrant.

In practice, these programs steer police departments towards spending more time and resources tracking down and arresting immigrants who are often only guilty of minor offenses. For example, many immigrants enter the system because of traffic violations. In Mecklenburg County in North Carolina, during the first nine months of participating in the 278(g) program 66.5 percent of the undocumented immigrants who were arrested were stopped for a traffic violation. Outside of traffic violations, the crimes are usually misdemeanors. In Alamance County, North Carolina, a 2007 report showed that 82.5 percent of those arrested under the 287(g) were charged with misdemeanors, and only 17.5 percent were charged with felonies.

Statewide research also consistently shows that these programs do not reduce crime. For example, a study of 287(g)’s effects in North Carolina showed no reduction in crime. As the authors conclude, “Reactivation of the 287(g) program is, therefore, more likely to impose significant costs to taxpayers than to benefit public safety.” If our goal is to ensure the safety of communities, police departments and the FBI should be focusing more attention and energy on more serious crimes.

Some areas are starting to reform their policies based on research showing the limits of 287(g). The police department in Gwinnett County, Georgia, recognized the failure of the 287(g) program and decided to discontinue it. On January 1, 2021, Sheriff Keybo Taylor noted that “it is discriminatory and discourages minorities from inviting law enforcement into their community to fight crime because they fear being deported.” This is an important step towards rebuilding immigrants’ trust in the police and their sense of safety in their community — a step that more police departments should take.

To meet their goal of ensuring public safety, police departments should continue to focus their efforts on targeting offenders guilty of serious crimes. Yet when they take on immigration enforcement responsibilities, they spend less time pursuing other public safety threats. During President Obama’s administration, policymakers recognized this trade-off and moved away from Secure Communities in favor of the Priority Enforcement Program. But President Trump restarted Secure Communities in 2017.

Research has since shown that the Priority Enforcement Program seemed to be more effective at targeting serious offenders than Secure Communities. For example, it reduced the number of immigrants detained without a criminal conviction. In addition, it seems to have encouraged immigrants to request help from the police. That signals that the Priority Enforcement Program can provide public safety without wasting policing resources. In fact, research shows that the targeted approach saves taxpayer money compared to throwing a wide net. One study used back-of-the-envelope calculations to estimate that it would save about $81 million a year. However, the real benefits of reform are found in rebuilding the trust between police and communities.

Why building trust in the police matters for immigrants

Building trust between immigrant communities and police matters for overall public safety. For example, undocumented immigrants are sometimes a witness to or are victims of crime. Because of that, in October 2000, special visas called “U visas” were created to give protection to illegal immigrants who came forward with information or to report criminals. The number of requests for U visas has grown significantly since 2010.

A major impetus for the U visa’s creation was domestic violence. As many as one in four women and one in nine men are subjected to domestic violence. Yet, many cases go unreported. Unreported domestic violence cases are likely more common among undocumented victims since they face additional pressures against coming forward. An undocumented girlfriend living with an abusive documented partner might see herself as having few options, for example.

Ideally, U visas prevent battered immigrants from feeling forced to stay in unhealthy relationships based on their residency status. They can leave their abuser without fear of being deported. In practice, there is a higher demand for U visas than are currently allocated each year. This has caused an ever-increasing backlog of pending applications. Often the yearly cap of 10,000 is reached in the first or second quarter of the fiscal year. That means applicants must wait an average of two years to receive a deferred action notice and be put on the waiting list for a U visa. In January 2018, USCIS was still processing applications that were filed in late 2014.

Recently, fewer people seem to be coming forward to the police or a judge to self-petition for a U visa. But the number is still well above the cap each year. Fortunately, the new administration plans on increasing the current cap from 10,000 to 30,000. This will be an essential step in making U visas more accessible to those who need them.

Requesting a U visa requires that the abused report their abuser and get a signature from the police or a judge. But will the victim living in a community where the police cooperate with ICE feel comfortable coming forward? Research by immigration experts Catalina Amuedo-Dorantes and Esther Aremas-Arroyo examines exactly this question. How do local policies affect who comes forward to petition for protection from U visas?

Dr. Amuedo-Dorantes and Dr. Aremas-Arroyo’s research shows that higher levels of immigration enforcement lower the rate of petitions for U visas. On the flip side, the presence of sanctuary policies increases the rate of petitions for U visas. ”Sanctuary” is a broad term for policies that limit the extent that ICE and local police can work together. For example, they set the local police department’s guidelines for when they work with ICE and when they do not. The police can still arrest and prosecute criminal suspects, but they can’t arrest or prosecute anyone solely based on immigration status. These policies were politicized during President Trump’s administration and so tend to be controversial. Yet research overwhelmingly shows that sanctuary benefits public safety. Implementing sanctuary policies doesn’t attract any additional criminals or increase the danger in a community. They simply remove reservations that immigrants might have had to help the police with their investigations or come to the police for help.

Stepping outside of the debates about 287(g) and similar policies, other research suggests that local police’s aggressive immigration enforcement can even reduce public safety. In Arizona, the state passed legislation in 2010 meant to deter illegal immigration. Research showed that violent crimes rose as a result. That’s likely because the legislation, SB 1070, required police officers to check the immigration status of anyone who might be in the country illegally. This policy shifted police resources away from serious crime and towards immigration violations.

All of this suggests that local policy matters for public safety. When communities implement policies that make immigrants feel safe coming forward to the police, the entire community benefits, not just immigrants. These types of policies don’t have to take the form of explicit sanctuary, but it’s clear from the research that communities should provide ways for immigrants to come forward regardless of their status.

Making safe communities for all

No one seriously questions the need for investigating and punishing crimes. But the history of ICE-police partnerships clearly shows that there are better ways to make communities safe. Those best practices give everyone, even undocumented community members, a reason to trust that the police will protect them. That often means limiting how and when police departments cooperate with ICE. For example, police departments can clarify that victims of crime can come forward without fear but that public safety threats will be doggedly pursued.

At the federal level, LEAP is right to ask Secretary Mayorkas to reconsider how ICE works with local police departments. The research is clear that Biden’s administration will find more success and local communities will be safer with a more targeted approach to immigration enforcement. Raising the number of U visas offered and working through the growing backlog of claims are two other important policy improvements.

These are good steps to take on a national level, but cities and communities need to step up as well. A promising start is in implementing policies that strengthen relationships between immigrants and local police departments. Regardless of immigration status, everyone should know they can trust the police to work for their safety.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.