March 29, 2020 Reading Time: 3 minutes

Sanctuary cities, and by extension immigration, are once again a locus of national controversy.  According to Fox News, localities that prevent federal agents from detaining illegal immigrants are frustrating attempts at immigration control.  A recent report issued by the Office of the Inspector General outlined the difficulties faced by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) when sanctuary cities inhibit federal agents: “ICE’s inability to detain aliens…who are located in uncooperative jurisdictions, results in increased risk those aliens will commit more crimes,” claims the report. “Furthermore, having to arrest ‘at-large’ aliens may put officer, detainee, and public safety risk and strains ICE’s staffing resources.”

The chief worry associated with sanctuary cities is increased crime.  “There are countless cases of violent crimes — including rape and murder — that have happened because local law enforcement refused to work with ICE,” argues Igor Magalhaes, a Legislative Fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.  Magalhaes goes on to describe a tragic instance of murder committed by an illegal immigrant, “who was released from police custody due to the city’s sanctuary policy.”  Much of the resistance to sanctuary cities stems from stories such as these. All these stories are heartbreaking, and our compassion for the victims should certainly play a role in crafting a public policy response.

But compassion alone is not enough.  When considering immigration policy for a nation of 330 million people, we must not allow compassion to blind us to the requirements of prudence.  Each of the stories of criminal behavior by illegal immigrants presents us with only a piece of the picture. The larger issue is whether illegal immigrants are especially prone to crime.  The evidence is clear: illegal immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans.

Consider data gathered right here in Texas.  The Texas Department of Public Safety collects information on the immigration status of criminals.  Data compiled from 2015 show an unequivocal pattern. In what follows, each figure is expressed out of every 100,000 members of the population in question (native or illegal immigrant).  First, let’s look at total criminal convictions. The figure for natives was 1,797; for illegal immigrants, 899. Second, considering specifically homicide convictions, the figure for natives was 3.1; for illegal immigrants, 2.6.  How about sex crimes convictions? 28.6 for natives, 26.4 for illegal immigrants. Lastly, larceny convictions: 267 for natives, 62 for illegal immigrants.

Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration scholar at the Cato Institute, sums up the data: “For all criminal convictions in Texas in 2015, illegal immigrants had a criminal conviction rate 50 percent below that of native‐​born Americans.”  While illegal immigrants occasionally commit terrible crimes, the popular impression of illegal immigrants being especially crime-prone is simply false.

These findings have significant implications for sanctuary cities and the national debate surrounding them. One of the criticisms leveled against the current administration’s immigration policies, in addition to the cruelties being committed at the border, is that monitoring and enforcement by federal officials infringes on peoples’ rights.  Immigration enforcement requires a significant degree of federal interference and control over the lives of non-criminal citizens and immigrants. Perhaps, if illegal immigrants were especially prone to crime, this could be justified on consequentialist grounds.  But since illegal immigrants do not pose a threat to public safety, the administration’s habitual violation of the rights of citizens and immigrants is indefensible.

Federalism and local government are essential parts of the American tradition of governance.  Genuine federalism requires cities and states to stand up to the national government in the event of overreach by Washington.  Viewed this way, sanctuary cities embody the American ideal. There may be good arguments against sanctuary cities. But we haven’t heard any yet, and it’s incumbent on critics to justify cracking down on our right to self-governance.

Alexander William Salter

Alexander W. Salter

Alexander William Salter is the Georgie G. Snyder Associate Professor of Economics in the Rawls College of Business and the Comparative Economics Research Fellow with the Free Market Institute, both at Texas Tech University. He is a co-author of Money and the Rule of Law: Generality and Predictability in Monetary Institutions, published by Cambridge University Press. In addition to his numerous scholarly articles, he has published nearly 300 opinion pieces in leading national outlets such as the Wall Street JournalNational ReviewFox News Opinion, and The Hill.

Salter earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in Economics at George Mason University and his B.A. in Economics at Occidental College. He was an AIER Summer Fellowship Program participant in 2011.

Get notified of new articles from Alexander William Salter and AIER.