Don’t force local police to double as immigration law enforcers, sheriffs including Sally Hernandez of Travis County unsuccessfully urged lawmakers in a commentary in the American-Statesman.
Republican proponents tout Senate Bill 4, the measure signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott on May 7, as once-and-for-all preventing local police and elected officials from shielding unauthorized immigrants from deportation. Violators could be fined or even removed from office.
In opposition, Hernandez and four other sheriffs — fellow Democrats from Dallas, Harris, Bexar and El Paso counties — wrote that the proposal would “coerce” local law enforcement into diverting scarce resources to enforcing federal immigration laws at a risk to public safety. As it is, the sheriffs wrote, “FBI crime statistics have found that labeled ‘sanctuary’ cities experience lower rates of all crime types, including homicides.”
Is that so?
There’s no such FBI report, we found. PolitiFact in Washington, D.C., noted in a November 2016 fact check that a study published in August 2016 by researchers at the University of California at Riverside and Highline College found sanctuary policies didn’t affect crime rates either way.
Also, we’ve been fact-checking claims about so-called sanctuary cities for half a dozen years so we recognize that defining such a city can be slippery. In 2006, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service listed Houston and Austin among only 32 localities nationally that had sanctuary policies.
Travis County sheriff’s office spokeswoman Kristen Dark told us that the sheriffs drew their claim about less crime in sanctuary cities from a January report that considered more than 600 counties to be sanctuary locales.
The report by the Washington-based Center for American Progress, a liberal public policy research and advocacy group, states that crime in 2015 was significantly lower in 608 “sanctuary” counties than in counties where law officers were more compliant with requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to detain locally held suspects.
Tom K. Wong, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, wrote: “There are, on average, 35.5 fewer crimes committed per 10,000 people in sanctuary counties compared to non-sanctuary counties. Altogether, the data suggest that when local law enforcement focuses on keeping communities safe, rather than becoming entangled in federal immigration enforcement efforts, communities are safer.” The report says there also are other advantages such as stronger economies.
“Large central metro sanctuary counties have 65.4 fewer crimes per 10,000 people than large central metro non-sanctuary counties,” Wong wrote. “Noncore, rural sanctuary counties have 59.4 fewer crimes per 10,000 people than noncore, rural non-sanctuary counties.”
The report doesn’t identify any counties. But to our inquiry, Wong provided his list of 608 “sanctuary” counties. Wong said by email that he zeroed in on the counties based on information obtained from ICE by the San Francisco-based Immigrant Legal Resource Center. He forwarded what he described as an ICE spreadsheet with entries for 2,768 counties in 49 states plus other jurisdictions and said a column identifying individual counties as accepting or not accepting ICE detainer requests helped him single out the counties tallied as sanctuary counties.
At the time, Travis County was one of the counties listed as going along with ICE detainers, a reminder that the spreadsheet was put together before Hernandez, elected sheriff in 2016, implemented a policy in 2017 of not automatically granting ICE detainer requests.
The report by Wong drew crime rates from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting system tallies for 2015.
We didn’t have the know-how to replicate Wong’s work. Still, we compared total 2015 crimes rates for a few counties considered sanctuary communities by Wong compared with counties not bestowed with that label — and got mixed results. In our sampling, an Oregon “sanctuary” county in the study had the lowest total crime rate for 2015, 93 per 10,000 residents. Yet next-lowest was an Arkansas county listed as a “non-sanctuary county,” which had a rate of 94 crimes per 10,000 residents. That pattern, a sanctuary county followed by a non-sanctuary county, mostly played out through the dozen counties we checked.
In the report, Wong said the statistical technique he applied, “coarsened exact matching,” strengthened the cause-effect implication that sanctuary counties tend to have less crime.
Experts on crime statistics who we queried told us Wong’s statistical work looked solid. They were less sold on reaching cause-effect conclusions.
Tony Fabelo, an Austin-based researcher for the Council of State Governments, said: “You may assume that the theory behind the relationship between sanctuary cities and crime is that law enforcement practices are more effective in engaging the community, not alienating Latino, or immigrant communities, and, therefore, maybe this influences crime.
“For example,” Fabelo wrote, “if local law enforcement is not occupied by questioning and detaining suspected undocumented aliens, maybe their resources are better spent on usual crime fighting. Still, there are so many things not controlled here that can impact crime, that maybe the statement is a little stretched (sentencing practices, program resources to deal with drug treatment, mental health, security technologies in higher income places, and more importantly the number of police per capita in the community).”
Hernandez said: “FBI crime statistics have found that labeled ‘sanctuary’ cities experience lower rates of all crime types, including homicides.”
Any implication the FBI reached this conclusion is wrong; the agency has not aired such findings.
Still, an outside analysis of 2015 FBI-collected crime statistics supports the idea that communities offering sanctuary to unauthorized residents have less total crime. Then again, that analysis didn’t independently confirm the sanctuary status of each county nor did it fine-tune the crime statistics as much as criminologists would prefer before reaching cause-effect conclusions.
On balance, we find the sheriff’s statement Half True.
Statement: “FBI crime statistics have found that labeled ‘sanctuary’ cities experience lower rates of all crime types, including homicides.”