Sanctuary Cities: Fact-checking Jeff Sessions' statistics on undocumented immigrants

Sanctuary Cities: Fact-checking Jeff Sessions' statistics on undocumented immigrants

Attorney General Jeff Sessions railed against sanctuary cities during a White House press briefing on Monday, blaming cities that shelter undocumented immigrants for gang rapes, murders and other serious crimes against "countless Americans."

"When cities and states refuse to help enforce immigration laws, our nation is less safe," Sessions said. "Failure to deport aliens who are convicted of criminal offenses puts whole communities at risk, especially immigrant communities in the very sanctuary jurisdictions that seek to protect the perpetrators."

Insisting that "such policies cannot continue," Sessions announced that the Department of Justice plans to deny federal grants to any cities that refuse to detain undocumented immigrants — a callback to an executive order President Donald Trump signed just after assuming office in January, instructing the DOJ and the Department of Homeland Security to deny federal funds to sanctuary jurisdictions.

How true are Sessions' claims about undocumented immigrants and sanctuary cities? Let's take a look.

Do most Americans oppose sanctuary cities?

Sessions cited a poll he said showed "80% of Americans believe that cities that arrest illegal immigrants for a crime should be required to turn them over to immigration authorities," apparently referencing the same poll White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer pointed to a couple weeks earlier. Spicer claimed 80% of Americans "don't support sanctuary cities."

As the Washington Post pointed out, both Sessions and Spicer are guilty of simplifying things a little bit.

The poll, conducted by Harvard University's Center for American Political Studies and the Harris Poll, asked voters: "Should cities that arrest illegal immigrants for crimes be required to turn them over to immigration authorities?"

While it is true that 80% of the 2,148 polled answered "yes," Spicer's March 14 claim that those registered voters "don't support sanctuary cities" is broad and misleading. According to the Post, the wording of the poll implies violent crimes, when many undocumented immigrants are arrested for non-violent crimes — or no crimes at all. More nuanced poll questions, the Post reported, found more mixed opinions on sanctuary cities than the one Sessions referenced on Monday.

"The administration should not necessarily think that such a large percentage of Americans support its restrictions on sanctuary cities," the Post concluded.

Do undocumented immigrants commit a disproportionate number of crimes?

The real whopper of Sessions' presser Monday was his suggestion that undocumented immigrants are disproportionately responsible for heinous crimes — and that sanctuary cities are less safe for it.

In reality, rising immigration in the United States has corresponded with a decline in crime rates. Immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the U.S. and are incarcerated at lower rates than their native-born counterparts, regardless of their documentation status. In fact, undocumented immigrants are often more vulnerable to crime because they are frequently wary of reporting crimes against them for fear of being deported.

Are sanctuary cities less safe?

Sessions is not just wrong to imply that undocumented immigrants are more dangerous — he's also wrong to assert that sanctuary cities are less safe. 

In January, a study published by the Center for American Progress found that sanctuary counties had lower crime rates than their counterparts. Sanctuary counties were found to average 35.5 fewer crimes per 10,000 people than non-sanctuary counties; local police agencies can more effectively investigate crime without Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, and undocumented immigrants can better integrate into communities in sanctuary jurisdictions, Tom K. Wong, a political scientist at the University of California-San Diego who conducted the study, told NPR.

"Altogether, the data suggest that when local law enforcement focuses on keeping communities safe, rather than becoming entangled in federal immigration enforcement efforts, communities are safer and community members stay more engaged in the local economy," Wong wrote in the study.

"This in turn brings benefits to individual households, communities, counties and the economy as a whole."