• Emily Brown

What is the Economic Cost - or Benefit - of Sanctuary Cities?

In the past election cycle, the term “sanctuary cities” was used quite a bit, often without defining it or providing an objective view of the advantages or disadvantages of adopting these policies. Cities considering adopting these policies should consider both their values and the economic costs or benefits of implementing sanctuary policies and what is entailed in enforcing immigration policy on a local level.

In 2008, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, began a program called Secure Communities, which encouraged local law enforcement organizations to send arrested persons’ fingerprints to ICE to check for a record of illegal immigration. If there is a match, ICE issues a detainer against the jailed individual, so that they can be held in jail, even if they are not found to have committed a crime, while ICE decides if they should be deported.

Due to the administrative and financial burden this causes police departments and the potential for costly lawsuits due to the unconstitutional nature of these programs, many communities have chosen not to co-operate, and have been labeled as sanctuary cities.

Local Law Enforcement Concerns

Since the introduction of ICE programs, police departments across the country have pointed out that linking local law enforcement to federal immigration enforcement creates obstacles for policing built on trust. By complying with ICE programs, police can be seen as immigration agents, and risk losing the trust and cooperation of immigrant groups. An alternative model is community policing, where police departments build relationships within immigrant communities, and, rather than adhering to programs like Secure Communities, make a point of investigating immigration status for only the most serious offenses.

According to Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl, Dayton’s community policing policies “have been successful in building trust and making our city safer,” and have led to a nearly 22 percent reduction in serious violent crime and a 15 percent reduction in serious property crime in Dayton since the adoption of those policies.

Additionally, enforcing federal immigration regulations puts a large administrative and financial burden on local police forces. The Law Enforcement Immigration Task Force, comprised of more than 30 police chiefs, sheriffs, commissioners, and lieutenants from across the country, explains, “Immigration enforcement at the state and local levels diverts limited resources from public safety. State and local law enforcement agencies face tight budgets and should not be charged with the federal government’s role in enforcing federal immigration laws.”

It is no surprise that crime is expensive. Crime impacts the bottom line of communities by driving up costs of police, courts, and correctional institutions, as well as expenses borne by victims and lost earnings by victims and perpetrators. A report from the Center for American Progress finds that successful efforts to reduce violent crime can generate significant savings for municipal budgets and large benefits for residents. Decreasing crime improves property values, and eventually, cities’ reputations, leading to more attraction of talent and business. A question remains, then: are programs like Secure Communities effective in reducing the incidence of violent crime? The evidence is unclear. However, many peer-reviewed articles—for example, those collected by the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University—show that community policing is an effective way to decrease crime.

Legal Concerns

Proponents of cooperation with federal immigration officials point out that arrested person’s fingerprints are routinely sent to FBI databases to check to see if the person matches with a crime committed, and therefore, sending fingerprints to immigration databases is not without precedent. However, if a person has committed a crime, there is legal reason to hold them in jail, whereas the legal framework behind ICE detainers is much weaker.

ICE detainers request that local police hold a person even though they are otherwise eligible for release from criminal custody—and they are merely requests, not warrants. Holding people on minor infractions without a warrant is unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment, as some cities have found out the hard way. Several communities have had to pay six-figure settlements to individuals as a result of holding them on detainer. For instance, in 2014, Clackamas County, Oregon was held responsible by a federal court for damages to a woman held 19 hours past her scheduled release date. The judge in the case found that the ICE detainer was not mandatory, and did not demonstrate probable cause. In order to protect from expensive lawsuits, some cities are opting not to hold arrested persons on detainers.

Due to public outcry and legal challenges, in 2014, Secure Communities was replaced with the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP), which requires that an arrested person who has entered the country illegally have a criminal record before ICE can take action. However, research finds that most detainers are issued primarily to those with no criminal convictions. As the legal means of holding persons is still ICE detainers, PEP does nothing to protect cities against Fourth Amendment considerations.


President Trump has threatened to cut federal economic development funding to communities that choose to label themselves as sanctuary cities. The City of Pittsburgh receives $12.5 million in Community Development Block Grant funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the majority of which goes to fund planning efforts and services like affordable housing. Yet in light of the new administration’s plan to constrict budgets, federal funds going to cities is not guaranteed. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney is supportive of his city’s decision to continue sanctuary status, commenting recently, “Don’t get all full of yourself about the amount of money that the federal government gives us, it’s been dwindling for decades now.”

There are many questions that cities weighing sanctuary policies must ask; in addition to determining their values around policing practices and human rights, financial considerations are also part of the debate. Perhaps the new federal environment will tip the scales, given that the advantages of courting funding from agencies is uncertain, and evidence from community policing and expensive lawsuits show cost savings from sanctuary policies. In such a dynamic environment, it will be interesting to watch cities continue to weigh the costs and benefits themselves.

#government #communitydevelopment #sanctuarycities

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