Strict immigration enforcement does not necessarily improve public safety

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed a bill last month that would have required local police departments to work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to determine a detained immigrant’s legal status. North Carolina is one of the many states to try to renegotiate its immigration rules. Over more than a decade, at least 11 states have made similar moves. Florida and Texas made headlines this year with their responses to immigration.

The heart of this nationwide debate is about managing public safety and integrating immigrants — a delicate balance. States that want to hit the right notes would do well to follow more welcoming approaches. Instead of emphasizing differences, we should remember that we’re better together.

Laws like the one in North Carolina target communities that need a hand up, not another reason to live in the shadows. Leaders should be looking for ways to partner with immigrant communities, not stigmatize them as dangerous criminals.

The vetoed bill was modeled after the federal 287(g) program, which deputizes local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration laws. Proponents of these partnerships claim they improve public safety. Yet study after study shows that they reduce trust between immigrants and local law enforcement, all with no gains in public safety. So far, North Carolina has experimented with 287(g) policies, implementing them in some counties but not in others. Researchers have compared the different counties and found no evidence that crime fell because of partnerships with ICE. Other studies of 287(g) reach similar conclusions.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Other research has demonstrated that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than natives. So policies that pair ICE with local law enforcement are inefficiently spending public safety resources. This is something that Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden pointed out. McFadden ended the 287(g) program in Mecklenburg because of the costs involved.

Holding someone for ICE is expensive because ICE does not fully reimburse local governments for the cost. According to McFadden, North Carolinians are paying $191 a day per detainee, much more than the federal reimbursement of $40 per day.

Most worrying is that these types of partnerships between law enforcement and ICE drive immigrants into the shadows. For example, researchers have shown that partnerships with ICE spur Hispanic and Latino children to be pulled out of school and increase the number of Hispanic students who repeat grades or drop out entirely. Other research shows that 287(g) programs reduce English proficiency among children born in families with at least one undocumented parent.

Being pulled out of school or repeating a grade can limit the long-term success of children of immigrants, most of whom are U.S. citizens.

This loss of trust is particularly concerning in cases of domestic violence. A study of calls to police in Los Angeles showed that the publicized uptick in enforcement efforts during President Donald Trump’s administration reduced calls to report domestic violence to police. Heavy enforcement leaves immigrants vulnerable to abuse.

These failures are part of why national law enforcement groups have asked the federal government to end these programs.

In contrast, placing guardrails around how ICE and police cooperate has been shown to reduce domestic violence against immigrant women. Other studies show that crime doesn’t increase when local communities pass policies that build trust with immigrants. There’s everything to gain and nothing to lose.

At a federal level, the United States could expand its U visa program, which protects victims of violent crimes who cooperate with law enforcement. These visas were intended to improve public safety by making it easier and safer for immigrants to report crime and help police. Unfortunately, these U visas are tragically backlogged, and too few are given out.

These secondary costs don’t have to be incurred at all. Instead, local law enforcement should build relationships within their communities and encourage immigrant families, documented and undocumented, to come forward about suspicious behavior or when they are in danger. These kinds of efforts will do more to protect public safety than any partnership between ICE and local police.

Immigrants are overwhelmingly peaceful and hardworking people trying to find a better life for themselves and their children. Open arms will do more than stigmatizing policies that presume immigrants to be criminals.

When setting immigration policy at the local and federal levels, policymakers would do well to remember that immigrants, documented or not, can help make our communities safer. We’re better together. An outstretched hand that brings people out of the shadows will better promote public safety than targeting immigrant communities.

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.

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