Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made a crackdown on so-called sanctuary cities a centerpiece of his first few months at the Justice Department—but some cities that have heeded his warning are seeing their murder rates spike anyway.
In a speech last week, Sessions said “sanctuary cities”—a term with no clear legal definition—are safe harbors for violent international cartels, putting “innocent life, including the lives of countless law-abiding immigrants, in danger.”
And he singled out New York City in a later statement, saying it faces “gang murder after gang murder, the predictable consequence of the city’s ‘soft on crime’ stance.”
But a new analysis of preliminary data shows that in 2016, murder rates went up dramatically in many cities that cooperate with the feds on immigration. Immigration advocates say this means the attorney general is overstating the impact of ending “sanctuary city” policies as a way to fight violent crime.
“Sanctuary cities are not connected to the 2016 increase in crime in some cities despite Attorney General Sessions’s ill-informed comments to the contrary,” said Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration expert at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute. “Many of the cities with the biggest increase in crime are not sanctuary cities. There is no evidence that increased immigration enforcement reduces crime on the local level, thus there should be no increase in crime rates when cities reduce cooperation with the feds.”
The Justice Department says that’s completely incorrect.
“There are many drivers of crime in America and sanctuary cities are a part of that,” said DOJ spokesman Ian Prior. “Policies that shelter criminal aliens create a safe space for dangerous transnational criminal organizations to expand their network of drug trafficking, gun trafficking, and human trafficking. That puts residents of those communities in danger and makes it harder for the men and women in law enforcement to safely do their job.”
Data on murder rate hikes comes from FiveThirtyEight, which compiles and releases numbers on murders in major cities months before the FBI releases its Uniform Crime Report data. According to numbers the site published on Jan. 9, 2017, at least six cities had record-high murder rates in 2016, going back to 1960: Anchorage, Alaska; Fort Wayne, Indiana; Durham, North Carolina; Indianapolis, Indiana; Louisville, Kentucky; and Memphis, Tennessee. None are so-called sanctuary cities.
Additionally, six cities in particular had murder rate jumps that FiveThirtyEight called “alarming”: Chicago, Memphis, San Antonio, Louisville, Phoenix, and Las Vegas.
“Taken together, those six cities accounted for 76 percent of the overall big city murder rise in 2016,” FiveThirtyEight analyst Jeff Asher wrote.
Two of those cities—Chicago and Las Vegas—could be characterized as “sanctuary cities” (though Vegas officials dispute that characterization). Sessions has indicated that Chicago and Las Vegas may lose grant money from the Justice Department if they don’t cooperate with it more closely on immigration enforcement.
The other four cities, however, are very cooperative with the feds. Memphis is in Shelby County, and the public information officer for the county sheriff, Earle Farrell, told The Daily Beast that they work closely with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). If they arrest someone ICE is looking to deport, they will hold that person until an ICE officer can take him or her into federal custody, Farrell said. He added that they let the agency know when they arrest someone ICE is looking to deport.
Despite that, the AP found earlier this year that Memphis’s murder rate is the highest it’s been in 20 years. And FiveThirtyEight calculated that the city’s murder rate jumped by 56 percent from 2015 to 2016.
San Antonio, Texas, is another big city grappling with an increase in homicides. Murders there went up 61 percent in 2016, according to FiveThirtyEight. And the San Antonio Current reported that local law enforcement were perplexed by the numbers. But poor cooperation with feds on immigration enforcement doesn’t explain why; San Antonio’s police chief, William McManus, told Texas Public Radio in January that an ICE officer visits their detention center frequently looking for people who may be deported.
“They’re bumping their list up against what we have on our books,” he said at the time. “They’re not looking for someone who was arrested on a traffic ticket who may happen to be illegal, they wouldn’t know anyway. They’re looking for people who have committed serious crimes and may be in our detention center.”
Louisville, like San Antonio, has also seen eye-popping murder numbers. 2015 was the city’s deadliest year in 36 years, according to the Courier-Journal, and the paper found 2016 was even more lethal, with a 44-percent increase capped off by a double homicide on Thanksgiving. Local Fox affiliate WDRB reported last year that two Mexican cartels are active in Louisville: the Sinaloa Cartel and the Knights Templar.
Like Memphis, local law enforcement officers in Louisville let ICE know when they arrest someone the agency is looking to deport, according to the Courier-Journal. Corrections official Mark Bolton told the paper that they don’t hold undocumented immigrants for longer than usual if ICE is looking for them, but that that’s generally a non-issue since ICE takes custody of people they’re looking for within a few hours of hearing about their arrests.
The Phoenix city council, meanwhile, voted in February against becoming a sanctuary city out of concerns about violating a state law that requires local cooperation with the feds on immigration enforcement.
Phoenix’s murder rate reached a 27-year low in 2015, according to AZCentral, but jumped by 36 percent from 2015 to 2016. Last month, the DEA announced it had indicted 20 people on charges related to drug trafficking for Mexican cartels that occurred in the Phoenix suburbs.
Two other cities FiveThirtyEight noted for their dramatic murder spikes have both drawn ire from federal law enforcement over immigration. Chicago has long been a favorite punching bag of the Trump administration, and it stands to lose millions in Justice Department grants if it doesn’t become cooperative. The city’s skyrocketing murder rate was one of the biggest crime stories in 2016; it went up by 59 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight. In total, 762 people were murdered in the city last year, while 496 were killed in 2015, as CNN reported.
Las Vegas is another city that has drawn scrutiny from federal immigration authorities. Last week, the DOJ asked the Clark County manager—the county Vegas is in—to show that officials there have the freedom to share information with the feds about the immigration status of people they arrest. Clark County officials say they do this already, and adamantly deny it is a so-called sanctuary city. FiveThirtyEight found Vegas’s murder rate spiked 31 percent from 2015 to 2016.
Activists who support cities that don’t cooperate with the federal government on immigration enforcement—including Frank Sharry, who heads the pro-immigrants’ rights group America’s Voice—argue those policies can help curb crime.
“It’s just common sense among most law enforcement professionals that when cities encourage all of its residents to work with police—to reach out, report crimes, and serve as witnesses—they are safer,” Sharry said.
But some cities with sanctuary policies also saw murder spikes. More than twice as many people in New Orleans were shot in January of 2017 as in January of 2016, according to the Times-Picayune. And a Wall Street Journal analysis found that four major cities in particular are currently experiencing surging murder rates: Chicago, Baltimore, Milwaukee, as well as Memphis. The restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies lists Baltimore as a sanctuary city. And the DOJ recently sent a letter to Milwaukee asking it to prove it complies with federal information-sharing requirements about immigration.
Domenic Powell, an immigration policy analyst at the ACLU, said it’s important not to oversimplify the connections between immigration, so-called sanctuary city policies, and violent crime.
“The administration wants to construct this simplistic narrative about immigrants and crime that supports their political agenda,” he said. “But it isn’t backed by any facts, research, or consensus among law enforcement about what makes sense as a public safety strategy.”