Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
When Chicago announced it would sue over its sanctuary city crackdown, Justice Department officials launched a Trump-style attack in response.
On Monday, Chicago filed a lawsuit against the federal government, alleging that the Department of Justice’s latest and most powerful attack on so-called sanctuary cities is unconstitutional. “Chicago will not be blackmailed into changing our values,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced in a press conference.
In response, the Department of Justice shamed the mayor, blaming the city’s crime problems on its sanctuary policies, which divorce local policing from federal immigration enforcement. Via the Chicago Sun Times, Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores had this Trump-style attack:
In 2016, more Chicagoans were murdered than in New York City and Los Angeles combined. So it’s especially tragic that the mayor is less concerned with that staggering figure than he is spending time and taxpayer money protecting criminal aliens and putting Chicago’s law enforcement at greater risk.
The DOJ followed this up with a statement Monday decrying “the culture of lawlessness in the city.” This response sidesteps the legal arguments in the lawsuit, instead perpetuating a widely debunked link between sanctuary cities and crime. It continues the tradition of scapegoating cities, and communities of color within them, for problems they did not create—and suggests solutions that would only worsen those problems.*
Below, we unpack the claims.
Claim: The mayor is spending taxpayer money protecting criminal aliens
This line obfuscates what sanctuary cities do and don’t do, so here’s a quick refresher. Sanctuary cities actually don’t “protect criminal aliens.” In fact, they often cooperate with ICE to remove violent criminals. Many readily give the agency access to law enforcement databases, even when it can be a liability because these local gang databases are overly broad and riddled with inaccuracies.
What these “sanctuary” jurisdictions do is restrict their law enforcement officers from doing activities that they say are outside their local purview and that force them to operate like federal immigration agents. This includes collecting information about immigration status in the field, letting ICE officers into their jails, and fielding ICE’s requests (called “detainers”) to hold suspected undocumented immigrants for extra periods in jail.
Opting into these agreements with ICE can be costly. Several court rulings have already reinforced some of these policies. Some scaled back previous laws requiring local police from checking status in the field, while others—including a recent one in Massachusetts—have questioned the legality of detainers, which have often targeted permanent residents and even U.S. citizens.
Claim: The mayor is putting Chicago’s law enforcement at greater risk
There is no evidence that sanctuary policies lead to an increase in crime. In fact, many police officers argue that harsh local enforcement makes crime worse by eroding the trust from the community necessary for policing.
In one recent study, UC Riverside researchers compared crime rates in cities before and after they instituted sanctuary policies, and then matched crime rates in these cities against similar ones without sanctuary policies. They found “no statistically discernible difference,” and concluded that “sanctuary policies have no effect on crime rates, despite narratives to the contrary.”
Another study by Tom K. Wong, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, published by the left-leaning Center for American Progress, showed that sanctuary cities were actually safer and more economically viable places to live. The reasoning goes like this: If immigrant communities trust the police, they’re more likely to report crime, help the police find the criminals, and participate in the local economy—research backs that up.
In other words, the DOJ may actually be recommending that cities put themselves and their constituents at risk, all for a Boogeyman that does not exist. In fact, by threatening to pull the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant grant that help train and equip police, the person likely putting law enforcement at greater risk is Jeff Sessions himself.
Which brings us to the DOJ’s last point.
Claim: The mayor is less concerned with the city’s murder rate than its sanctuary status
As explained, many law enforcement officials oppose sanctuary city policies because they make policing harder. But city officials are also capable of handling more than one issue at the same time, and Emanuel has made his grave concern over Chicago’s murder rate known.
Crime is, in fact, rising in Chicago. And indeed, it did see more homicides than New York and Los Angeles combined in 2016, despite the fact that the other two cities have larger populations. But, as a recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice points out, crime has been this bad and far worse over the last 20 years in Chicago.
Any meaningful explanation of crime in the city has to take into account the history of ghettoization, economic neglect, and police violence that has isolated certain communities and forced them to bear the burden of crime and punishment. Plus, federal gun policy facilitates illegally trafficked guns from states, such as neighboring Indiana, that have weaker gun laws.
Emanuel has not cracked the code to solving Chicago’s crime problem. And while his strategies can be criticized, he did put one in place. As he told Donald Trump earlier this year, "We have repeatedly made specific requests of the administration for greater law enforcement integration and resources; a higher priority placed on federal gun prosecutions; and funds restored toward mentoring and after-school and summer jobs programs that have proven to be positive alternatives for our young people.
“Because this is so important, I’ll always be ready with this list whenever the President asks."
*This post has been updated with new information.