Numerous studies find immigration enforcement has no 'chilling effect' on aliens contacting police

by Brendan Kirby | Updated 03 Jul 2017 at 10:06 AM

Democrats during last week’s debate over a pair of immigration bills repeatedly raised one of the most popular arguments of enforcement opponents: that cooperation between local police and federal authorities will deter immigrants from reporting crimes.

Considering how frequently that theory gets cited by “sanctuary city” proponents — and how rarely it gets disputed — the objective evidence is surprisingly mixed.

On the one hand, some researchers have conducted surveys indicating that illegal immigrants would be less likely to report crimes if they believed local police were involved with immigration enforcement. And University of Pennsylvania master’s degree candidate Alberto Ciancio wrote a paper this year concluding that counties that reduced cooperation with federal immigration authorities during Barack Obama’s presidency saw increased clearance rates — particularly for violent crimes — compared to counties that did not.

Ciancio suggests the results are due either to greater cooperation by immigrants or because police in those jurisdictions were able to focus more aggressively on solving crimes.

On the other hand, studies dating back years have failed to detect significantly lower rates of crime reporting by ethnicities with high numbers of immigrants.

Immigration experts and former law enforcement officials contend that cops never press victims about their legal status and that people living in America without permission show little fear of the local police. Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said it is hard for mass migration proponents to argue there is a chilling effect when illegal immigrants feel safe enough to lobby Congress and protest in the streets.

"I guess they figure if they say it all the time, it will be taken as the truth, but it's not," he said. "Illegal aliens do not particularly fear law enforcement … The biggest impediment to coming forward is the fear of retribution from some of these gangs. It's fear of the gangs, not the police."

Chilling Effect? 'I Have Not Seen It'

The idea that sanctuary policies are needed to build trust with immigrant communities has become so ingrained that San Francisco is poised to shell out $190,000 to an illegal immigrant who ended up in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody because of a tip by a police officer. Authorities argue that the taxpayer-funded settlement is necessary to restore that trust.

Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) pushed a Justice Department official at a hearing last month to say that the dangers posed by the MS-13 gang are exacerbated by the fear of deportation felt by victims who are illegal immigrants. Acting Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Blanco rejected that.

"I can tell you that I haven't seen that in my practice in 28 years federally, I have not seen it," he said. "I understand that there is some discussion about it. I can tell you about one of the things that does concern them. One thing that concerns them is when they live in a community where these same people have been released back into the community. That worries them, and that prevents them from coming forward."

The Center for Immigration Studies, which favors stronger enforcement, has researched numerous studies and found little evidence to back the "chilling effect" claim. One of the most compelling data points is a giant survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2009 that asked people if they were the victim of a crime and whether they reported it to police.

The survey found that male Hispanics and non-Hispanics failed to report violent crimes at nearly identical rates in 2008. Non-Hispanics were slightly more likely to report property offenses, according to the report. Hispanic women were more likely to report violent crimes than non-Hispanic women, but slightly less likely to report property offenses.

Using ethnicity as a proxy for immigration status has obvious limitations, said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies. But she noted that Hispanics are more likely to be immigrants than other racial and ethnic groups. In 2008, only 47.1 percent of all crime victims reported it to police.

"If there were some big chilling effect going on … you'd think it would show up there," she said. "Crime reporting is a problem among all groups."

The think tank also reviewed a 2009 study by the University of Virginia and the Police Executive Research Forum that found no discernible impact on crime reporting in Virginia's Prince William County after it started screening offenders for immigration violations and alerting ICE agents. The study also credited the immigration policy with a decline in certain violent crimes.

ICE Cooperation Didn't Depress Crime Reporting

A similar study in 2009 found that deportations spiked in Florida's Collier County after local officials joined a 287(g) program run by the George W. Bush administration that deputized local law enforcement officers to make immigration arrests. Yet it did not impact crime reporting patterns in immigrant communities. Vaughan said that is significant because the 287(g) program represented far more active cooperation than merely honoring ICE's hold requests.

A 2001 study by researchers Robert C. Davis, Edna Erez, and Nancy Avitabile surveyed immigrants about why they did not report crimes to police. The most common reason was a language barrier, followed by cultural differences and a lack of understanding about how the criminal justice system works in the United States. Fear of deportation lagged well behind.

Vaughan also analyzed calls for service at the police precinct level in Los Angeles and Boston, which both participated in a program called Secure Communities that promoted cooperation between ICE and local law enforcement. Crime rates, not the foreign-born share of the precinct populations, affected calls for service.

“What I found was what makes crime reporting numbers move is more crimes being committed,” she said.

Michael Cutler, a retired immigration agent who served on a federal drug task force in New York, said it is ridiculous to think that police investigating crimes press witnesses and informants about their immigration status.

"This notion is a big, fat lie," he said. "Many of my informants were illegal aliens, and we worked with them, and they worked with us, and it was marvelous … Why would you screw around with the guy who is trying to help you?"

Vaughan said that law enforcement officials can sponsor illegal immigrants and their families for U visas if they are victims of crime and assisted prosecutions.

"Victims and witnesses are not targets for deportation unless they are also criminals," she said.