Cheat Sheet

What is a "sanctuary city"?

There is no one specific definition of a sanctuary city. But, generally speaking, a city is considered a sanctuary city if it attempts to protect undocumented immigrants from deportation. This is generally accomplished by having the city’s law enforcement agencies refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. For example, many cities prohibit their police officers from asking people they’ve arrested about their immigration status.

Proponents of sanctuary cities say that the practices encourage cooperation by undocumented individuals with law enforcement. Opponents counter with incidents in which undocumented individuals who were protected by sanctuary city policies went on to commit violent crimes.

Philadelphia is a sanctuary city.

Trump and the City: Law Enforcement

The second of an ongoing series navigating our new reality

Trump and the City: Law Enforcement

The second of an ongoing series navigating our new reality

Last week, we analyzed the new challenges facing cities when it comes to education policy in Donald Trump’s America. This week, we’ll dive into law enforcement.

Donald Trump owes little to cities politically. His winning electoral numbers were overwhelmingly rural, small town industrial belt, and exurban. Yet many of the cities and metropolitan regions that voted Democratic are increasingly the major generators of economic value and demographic growth. He cannot succeed unless those cities succeed.

If Trump wants to convert a narrow electoral win of 107,000 votes in three swing states and a popular vote loss of more than 2 million into a governing majority, he will focus on the very metros that voted so heavily against him, while also trying to deliver benefits for rural America and Midwestern industrial communities.

Law and order was a frequent Trump campaign theme. The phrase was used liberally during campaign speeches in association with inner city crime, a lack of support for police during police-community controversies and illegal immigration.

The first big issue in Trump’s law enforcement initiative will be his battle with sanctuary cities, something that may set a tone for the administration in the same way that Ronald Reagan set a tone by firing striking air traffic controllers. But before we address that, let’s look at overall crime data, the context for his pronouncements.

The data is largely at odds with Trump’s rhetoric.  The chart below shows FBI statistics on reported violent crime during the past 25 years. Violent crime peaked in 1992 and fell steadily until 2014, with some upward movement since that time.


Overall, the American violent crime rate has fallen for more than two decades. Are we moving back into an upward trend? It is too early to tell. The last time crime was an issue in a national American election was in 1992, at the high mark on this chart, when Bill Clinton was the law and order candidate promising to subsidize 100,000 new police.

How about major American cities, where there is more media attention?  The chart below shows murder rates in the 10 largest American cities going back to 1985. Again the trend is downward since the early 1990’s peak, with some upward movement over the past two years in a few cities.


If there is a poster child for Trump and other Republican claims of out of control crime and violence, it is Chicago. The symbol is perfect: Obama’s hometown and a city run by his former Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel.

This past year has indeed been a gruesome year for Chicago. Murder rates and violent crime have climbed remarkably. The Chicago numbers are back to those in the mid-1990’s and will lead the 10 largest American cities on a per capita basis when the numbers are calculated at year’s end. Chicago’s murder and violent crime rates show increases as high as 50 percent over 2015 levels.

Among American cities, the largest 10 are nowhere near the highest urban crime centers. That distinction belongs to smaller cities including Milwaukee, Detroit, Oakland, Kansas City, St. Louis, Memphis, and Baltimore. St. Louis, Baltimore, and Detroit are among the 50 most violent cities in the world with numbers that rival drug cartel and gang centers in Mexico, Brazil, and Honduras.

The long view of crime rates in urban America shows progress. During the past few years there have been increases in selected cities, including dramatic increases in a few places. The reasons are widely debated and include the so-called “Ferguson effect,” which attributes crime increase to a post-Ferguson atmosphere that some think led to active de-policing. In fact, three of the cities that have shown significant murder and violent crime increases are Baltimore, Chicago, and St. Louis, all of which have been the setting of police-community strife over the deaths of African American men shot by police.

Heather MacDonald from the Manhattan Institute is the most prominent proponent of the Ferguson effect thesis. But many criminologists are not so quick to attribute crime increases to any tendency to de-police, as researchers at the Brennan Center at NYU note. Still, even a recent Justice Department study noted that it was one of many plausible reasons.

Trump will certainly reorganize the Justice Department to be more favorable to law enforcement and less focused on using civil rights enforcement to examine potential police misconduct. In doing so, he will underestimate—or simply not acknowledge—the depth of distrust that exists between many in the African American community and the police. That will be a tragic miscalculation.

The new Justice Department is likely to lose some of the momentum that emerged from the Obama administration’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which had some smart recommendationsAnd it will no longer be an active factor in criminal justice reform, like the bipartisan effort to review minimum sentence mandates and alternatives to incarceration for non-violent crimes.

And how about immigration and law and order? There is no dispute that dramatic demographic changes have been brought about by immigration. The numbers of foreign-born residents in the United States as a percentage of the overall population is as high as it has been in a century.

The chart below shows the rates of foreign born since 1900. We are back at the same level as where we were in the period of from 1900-1920 when waves of eastern and southern Europeans arrived. It is instructive to note that this was also a period when anti-immigration feelings were high, which eventually led to a significant curtailment of immigration in 1924.


Those foreign born numbers then declined until they began to rise again from the 1980’s until today, as a result of the 1965 immigration bill that eliminated the European selection advantage and opened the nation to a more global flow of immigrants.

Yes, we are more diverse and becoming a more global nation from the perspective of national origin. But that has nothing to do with crime rates. Increases in immigration occurred during the same period when there has been a decrease in crime rates in America. And all studies of first generation crime rates versus native-born crime rates demonstrate lower rates of immigrant crime.

But how about crimes by undocumented residents? Here the data is more complex. If you look at federal prisons, the number of undocumented criminals is far higher on a percentage basis than their overall numbers, but that is a function of the fact that they tend to be sentenced through federal courts. The overall data is harder to accurately assess but seems to show numbers no different than overall legal immigration crime numbers.

Still, there have been well-publicized examples of people who have been deported multiple times, still in the country and committing terrible crimes. The Kate Steinle case in San Francisco is the best known, but there have been many others. And the inability of the Democrats to even acknowledge that this is a problem in any way contributed to the cultural resentment expressed during the election.

Which brings us to sanctuary cities. The Trump focus on immigration and crime is linked primarily to undocumented residents. Trump faces two practical problems: How to define sanctuary cities, since there is no legal definition but rather a series of practices that vary from place to place; and how to use the purse strings of the federal government to enable cooperation. We will learn a lot about this in the first 100 days of the Trump administration.

Many Americans, including many in law enforcement, agree with two foundational tenets of sanctuary cities: 1) it is up to the federal government to enforce immigration and not local police; and 2) asking immigrant status information may dissuade otherwise law abiding residents from coming forward with information that can help the police solve crimes.

The data is largely at odds with Trump’s law and order rhetoric. Overall the American violent crime rate has fallen for more than two decades. Are we moving back into an upward trend? It is too early to tell.

But many do not understand the extent to which some city governments have made non-cooperation a badge of honor and seem to have taken it to extremes. There are many people who support large scale immigration who are hard pressed to understand how cities get to pick and choose which laws to enforce or why Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainer requests should be ignored. I doubt they are buying the Fourth Amendment reasons from Mayor Kenney.   

An August ICE press release details the arrest of three undocumented criminals after they’d been released from local custody when ICE detainer requests were not honored by Philadelphia authorities. The men had previous convictions for crimes including DUI, aggravated assault, weapons offenses and narcotics manufacturing.

If Trump eliminates anti-immigrant rhetoric and focuses on criminal deportations, he may find some support even from those who did not support him. He has to thread the needle in ways that do not prejudice legitimate immigration nor harshly deal with undocumented residents who have not committed any crimes since entering the nation. Can anyone reasonably blame those who came here as children with parents who were looking for work? Those children did not make the choice to immigrate and this is the only nation they know.

Cities, particularly older industrial cities that lost population in the second half of the 20th century, have watched immigrant entrepreneurs and residents reclaim declining neighborhoods. Immigration has been essential to their revitalization. That is why this is going to be such a salient public policy moment. You can take the same immigration chart above and link it to the rebirth of many American cities—not as a causal factor but certainly as a contributor.

We will find out soon if Trump can move from campaigning to governance. A war of wills and legal precedent is coming. The rhetoric on both sides between mayors and the incoming administration will have to give way to negotiation. Otherwise everyone will suffer.

Next week, we’ll look at housing policy through an urban policy lens, with an eye toward trying to figure out how cities can make our way in Trump’s America.

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