Sanctuary Cities: Attitudes Towards Collaboration Between Local Law Enforcement and Federal Immigration Authorities

By Jason P. Casellas (University of Houston) and Sophia J. Wallace (University of Washington, Seattle)

Due to the stall in immigration reform at the federal level, there has been a rapid increase in state-level immigration policies over the last 15 years. Some states pursued restrictionist policies aimed at limiting immigrants’ rights and increasing immigration enforcement, such as Arizona through SB 1070, while others have sought to expand and protect immigrant rights, such as California in declaring the entire state a sanctuary. During the 2016 campaign and in his presidency, Donald Trump repeatedly promised increasing restrictive immigration policies aimed at reducing the number of undocumented immigrants, massive deportations, building a wall on the U.S-Mexico border, and imposing harsh penalties on immigrants.

Sanctuary city and county policies have created considerable controversy in elite discourse and in the media in recent years. Sanctuary policies seek to limit local law enforcement’s collaboration and sharing of information about immigrants in their custody with federal authorities such as Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE).  Trump’s stance on immigration also included a crackdown on sanctuary cities, which he claims harbor criminals and undocumented immigrants.  Attorney General Sessions has also made repeated public threats to withhold federal funding from localities that enact or abide by sanctuary policies. Defenders of policies requiring local-federal collaboration claim it makes communities safer by preventing undocumented immigrants from committing crimes.  Opponents of such collaboration say that the policies will create an overly policed atmosphere, result in racial profiling, and reduced public trust in local law enforcement. Many police departments believe sanctuary policies actually improve public safety, whereas harsh anti-immigrant policies and local-federal collaboration reduce it.

Research on sanctuary cities is just beginning to emerge and has debunked the link between sanctuary cities and higher crime rates. An area that requires more attention is how the public feels about sanctuary policies.  Our work is among the first to examine public opinion on this issue and focuses on the role of racial attitudes in explaining support for collaboration between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities.  We show how people view the privileges that stem from being white is a key factor in explaining positions on this issue.  Our work contributes to a new body of literature focused on sanctuary cities and policies by demonstrating that racial attitudes, and feelings about immigrants more generally, determine whether individuals believe local police should report undocumented immigrants who are arrested to federal immigration authorities.

Our most important and novel contribution is the finding that a key moderating factor on support for collaboration between local police and federal immigration authorities is perceptions of racial advantages. People who most strongly recognize the privileges and advantages that white people in the country possess because of their skin color are significantly less likely to support punitive local immigration enforcement policies. We believe that people who recognize white privilege are aware of the potentially damaging and discriminatory effects that increased local immigration enforcement will inflict on communities of color, and may see it as an example of structural inequality. It is likely the case that places in which sanctuary city, county, and state polices are enacted are places in which white Americans, including political elites and other political actors, recognize the distinct privileges they hold because of their phenotype and racial group.


Figure 1 present the substantive effects for our main ordered logit model. The values report the first difference in probability that a respondent will strongly agree that local police should report undocumented immigrants who are arrested to federal immigration authorities, while setting all other variables to their median values. 95% confidence intervals are indicated by the lines in the figures and in brackets.

What role might salience of other immigration and racial attitudes play on this issue? How important immigration is as an issue combined with the perception that there are too many undocumented immigrants in the country also substantially increase support for punitive immigration enforcement strategies. In the context of this study, we contend that people who place a high level of importance on immigration may be reflecting concerns about immigration or even potential anxiety about immigration. When individuals indicate that immigration is an important issue it is likely because they think immigration is a problem, not because they are concerned about protections for immigrants and lack of comprehensive reforms offering pathways to legalization and citizenship.

Other prevailing explanations found in previous research to explain public opinion on immigration do not appear to influence attitudes on local-federal collaboration. For example, we find changing demographics and economic threat do not explain support for collaboration. However, partisanship does play a critical role, as Republicans express starkly different opinions than Democrats. Republicans overwhelmingly support collaboration between local police and federal immigration authorities, indicating polarization along party lines.

While much of the research on racial attitudes and immigration revolves around anti-immigrant sentiment, we also argue that certain progressive racial attitudes may reduce support for local-federal immigration enforcement. It is important for researchers to examine racial inequality from the perspective of disadvantages to minorities but also in terms of the role of white advantage. Beliefs about white privilege matter and help explain attitudes on immigration policy and potentially other racialized policy areas as well.

Read the article here.

Photo by Nitish Meena on Unsplash

Author Biographies

Jason P. Casellas  is an Associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Houston. He has research interests in representation, Latino politics, state and local politics, and immigration politics and policy

Sophia J. Wallace is an Associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Washington, Seattle. Her research interests include Latino politics, immigration politics and policy, immigrant rights activism, social movements, and representation.

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