At the center of national debate, a question remains unanswered: Are sanctuary cities that protect illegal immigrants safer than non-sanctuary cities?
Sanctuary supporters claim they are.
"Police chiefs across the nation believe that enlisting local police to enforce immigration law is a bad idea," California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De Leon, a Democrat, claimed at a news conference last week. "Having [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] pluck criminals out of jail and send them across the border or wherever they came only to come right back endangers our communities.”
But is that true?
A six-year study published last year by the University of California, Riverside found "violent crime is slightly higher in sanctuary cities." It concluded there was "no statistically discernible difference in violent crime rates, rape, or property crime across" 55 cities studied.
And at least one city, Phoenix, saw a drop in crime after it eliminated its sanctuary city status, according to former law enforcement officials.
Yet, some 200 cities nationwide adopted sanctuary policies and lawmakers propose to make California a sanctuary state. While the statute is opposed by the statewide county sheriff's association, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck supports the bill that would prohibit local police from cooperating with ICE requests for information on illegal immigrants in custody.
"We do not want to dilute trust because trust is the most important thing in policing," said Chief Beck. "We depend on our communities, particularly our immigrant communities to cooperate with us, not only to keep them safe but to keep all of you safe."
Beck and De Leon were joined by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. They oppose two bills passed Thursday by the House. One measure – named Kate's law after a young woman who was killed by an illegal immigrant who had been deported five times – stiffens punishment for people who re-enter the US illegally. The other strips some federal dollars from "sanctuary" cities that refuse to cooperate with ICE.
In the eyes of Levi Bolton, executive director to the Arizona Police Association, that would be a mistake. In May 2008, Phoenix reversed itself, becoming a non-sanctuary state. Under the policy, police had full discretion to ask suspects about their immigration status and had the freedom to call ICE.
"We saw a decrease in crime," said Bolton. "It had a deterrent effect on folks because the risk of discovery went up exponentially when we actually enforced the law."
Bolton served with Mark Spencer, who spent 25 years patrolling in Phoenix.
"When we eliminated our sanctuary policy back in 2008, we saw crime, violent and stolen vehicles fall by 25 percent," he recalled. "We saw a 20-year low crime rate. When we were allowed and had the discretion to contact our federal immigration partners, crime fell drastically."
According to City-Data.com, which collects data from various government agencies, from 2008 to 2009 Phoenix's murder rate fell 27 percent, robberies by 23 percent, assault by 13 percent, burglaries by 14 percent and theft by 19 percent. The numbers for each category fell the following year as well – albeit by smaller margins.
The bills in Congress still face stiff opposition in the senate, where Sanctuary supporters claim the "reckless" Trump Administration led to a decrease in sexual assault and domestic violence because those who may report such crimes fear deportation.
Under his statewide sanctuary bill, "local police officers will maintain the trust of immigrant communities that has been carefully nurtured,” he claimed, “the trust that is so important to our safety."