Texas' Sanctuary City Law a Solution in Search of a Problem

Texas' Sanctuary City Law a Solution in Search of a Problem

March 12, 2011
Originally published in The Houston Chronicle

Texas' proposed anti-immigration law, HB 12, had its first public hearing last week. Introduced by Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, HB 12 is supposed to prevent cities and municipalities from interfering with Federal and state enforcement of immigration laws. In reality, HB 12, along with other bills proposed by Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, is part of a wider effort to expend vast state resources on enforcing the unenforceable.

This is a solution in search of a problem. Houston, the state's largest city, neither interferes with nor seeks to locally enforce federal immigration laws. That is as it should be, as immigration laws are a federal matter. HB 12 will squander police resources while failing to put a dent in undocumented immigration.

Immigration restrictionists are right that there is a link between immigration and real crimes — just not in the way they think. Immigrants commit significantly fewer crimes per capita than native-born Americans and are significantly correlated with decreasing crime in the cities and states they inhabit.

Local police are inexperienced in enforcing immigration laws. Federal training on the matter, through the 287(g) program run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), has been a failure. Last year's federal performance review of the program stated that it was incompetently run and is in need of 33 specific improvements before it adequately complies with federal law.

Since then ICE has made some limited headway.

A major concern is they currently don't properly supervise officers in the field. Last December Judge Underhill of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut ruled that undocumented immigrants can sue ICE officials who violate their civil rights. 287(g) and the local police they support will have to tread even more carefully in the future. 

Regardless of 287(g) involvement, local enforcement of immigration laws decreases public safety because unauthorized immigrants would become even more reluctant to work with the police.

Former New York and Los Angeles police chief William Bratton — as accomplished a crime fighter as you can get — opposes local enforcement of immigration laws, "because immigrants living and working in our communities are afraid to have any contact with the police ... [officers] can't prevent or solve crimes if victims or witnesses are unwilling to talk to us for fear of being deported."

Bratton isn't alone in his opinion. The Police Executive Research Forum, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police, Major Cities Chief's Association, and Police Foundation all either oppose or are highly skeptical of such laws. They recognize that local enforcement of immigration laws could unintentionally — but very seriously — decrease public safety.

Instead of unworkable and expensive laws like HB 12, the immigration debate should instead focus on how to handle future immigration flows in a manner that is both humane and economically sound. The first step is to deregulate and reform the massive federal immigration system.

Despite gargantuan and expensive immigration efforts by the Obama administration — which deported a record 390,000 people last year — our closed-door immigration policy is a disaster. Many millions of immigrants have no chance of ever entering the U.S. legally. Those who can will often wait for decades to be admitted. Many sneak in because legal avenues are closed to them, and American businesses need the labor they can provide.

The solution is to siphon the otherwise law-abiding immigrants away from the black markets and into the legal system. But how do we do that? Immigrants need to have a speedy, safe, and legal way to enter the United States without quotas, burdensome labor market regulations, or meddlesome inspections.

Immigration, like every other economic activity, needs to be able to respond to market demands and disciplines. Only when most immigrants have a legal way to enter the U.S. will the government know who is here and the undocumented immigrant problem will be solved. Expensive and harmful laws like HB 12 will only make matters worse and push undocumented immigrants further into the black market.