How sanctuary saves lives

By Josh T. Smith

Published:

Sanctuary protects vulnerable people

More and more cities and states are adopting sanctuary policies. The extent of sanctuary’s spread is difficult to know, yet it’s clear from debates at city halls and state legislatures across the country that the idea is becoming more prevalent.

How sanctuary policies work varies from place to place. At root, sanctuary limits how local police officers can interact with federal immigration officials. For example, by directing law enforcement to not hold immigrants only on the basis of immigration-related offenses. Immigrants who are suspected of violent crimes are still held and prosecuted, but cannot be held because of their immigration status.

Sanctuary is a controversial policy. State governments sometimes preemptively ban lower-level governments from enacting sanctuary policies. The controversy arises because some see the policy as a security risk and others see it as a vital form of integration or a way to conserve policing resources.

The public safety concerns focus on the overall effect of sanctuary policies on crime in the city or state. So far, research demonstrates that those fears are misplaced. Sanctuary doesn’t seem to have any effect on crime rates. However, focusing on the overall crime rate can miss smaller trends. Although sanctuary may have little or no effect on overall crime rates, it may actually deter certain kinds of crimes.

A chief example of this is domestic violence, which makes up 15 percent of all violent crimes in the US. One in seven men and one in four women will suffer domestic violence at some point in their lives. For Hispanic women, the rate is slightly higher, at one in three.

Despite its prevalence, many never come forward to report domestic violence. Hispanic women, in particular, report that they don’t come forward because they lack confidence in the police and fear deportation. Here the argument in favor of sanctuary is crystal clear. Providing certainty that women can come forward without fear of being prosecuted for immigration-related offenses might reduce cases of domestic violence. And that’s exactly what a new CGO working paper dives into.

Catalina Amuedo-Dorantes and Monica Deza, two economists specializing in immigration policy, analyze the effects of sanctuary policies on domestic violence. They concentrate on domestic homicide rates and find that sanctuary policies significantly reduce the number of Hispanic women murdered.

It’s a sobering finding. And one that reveals the value of providing sanctuary to immigrants.

Why sanctuary might increase reports of domestic violence

The reason that Dr. Amuedo-Dorantes and Dr. Deza focus on homicides in their study is that sanctuary policies might increase the number of reports of domestic violence. Sanctuary is meant to encourage people to come forward to police, and so domestic violence reports might actually go up after sanctuary is enacted.

These increased reports of domestic violence don’t mean that more domestic violence is happening in areas with sanctuary policies. Instead, sanctuary is just making immigrants feel safer reaching out to report crimes.

For the researchers, the problem is isolating the effect of sanctuary on domestic violence. Since reporting rates might go up even though there hasn’t been a change in the actual cases of domestic violence, they need a crime that reporting shouldn’t change for. Because homicides are almost always reported, they can examine rates of homicides before and after sanctuary to see the likely effect of sanctuary on homicides.

The study shows a large decrease in domestic homicide rates attributable to sanctuary policies. Rates fell by between 52 and 62 percent for Hispanic women. To check the results and their theory, the researchers show that sanctuary doesn’t change the rate of domestic homicides against men or white women. This lends more support to their analysis since it shows that sanctuary has unique benefits for Hispanic women.

That’s a sizable reduction in domestic homicides, and one that the researchers say has multiple likely explanations.

Three ways that sanctuary might reduce domestic violence

The study’s authors propose three reasons that domestic homicides fall because of sanctuary policies. The first is that increased trust in law enforcement encourages reporting of less serious cases of domestic violence, and prevents those situations from escalating into more violent ones. This line of thinking has motivated immigration advocates to push sanctuary policies for several years.

Sanctuary might also deter offenders in the first place. Some women may be abused because their abuser knows that it’s unlikely that victims will go to the police. Even if a woman is in the US legally, she may share a home with someone who is undocumented and so fear reporting violence to the police. Sanctuary gives certainty that a report of domestic violence won’t involve questions about immigration status or the possibility of deportation.

Finally, sanctuary might not just give women certainty to approach the police, but greater economic independence. Because sanctuary prevents a traffic-stop from turning into a deportation proceeding, women might be more likely to find jobs to support themselves and leave abusive relationships. Research on domestic violence has shown that financial independence reduces the incidence of domestic violence. Although it’s not the focus of the study, the authors provide initial evidence suggesting that greater financial independence might be part of the story. They show that unemployment rates for Hispanic women are about 10 percent lower in areas with sanctuary policies.

Sanctuary saves lives

Each of these explanations for why sanctuary reduces domestic homicides likely holds true in certain cases. Each provides a view for policymakers on the benefits of sanctuary policies. Women who may otherwise become victims of domestic violence are protected by sanctuary. That’s the real takeaway for policy debates about sanctuary: Sanctuary lives up to its name.

The new study provides a promising outlook for sanctuary’s potential to make cities and towns safer. There is much to be gained from pursuing sanctuary policies, and nothing to be lost. Cities, counties, and states creating some form of sanctuary system will provide refuge for many who might otherwise suffer in silence.

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.