Sanctuary Policy Adoptions: Assessing the Effects of Ideology and Access to Labor and Housing Markets

By Donald Vandegrift (College of New Jersey) and Zachary Weyand (College of New Jersey)

Liberal metro areas are known for their staunch defense of cultural and racial diversity. These defenses are often cast in moral terms as a conflict between cosmopolitan desires for openness and insular impulses that seek to preserve cultural homogeneity. A December 2016 opinion piece by the editors of The New York Times (“Proud to Be a Sanctuary City”) offers a typical statement of this view: “The word “sanctuary” as Mr. Trump deploys it — a place where immigrant criminals run amok, shielded from the long arm of federal law — is grossly misleading, because cities with “sanctuary” policies cannot obstruct federal enforcement and do not try to. Instead, they do what they can to welcome and support immigrants, including the unauthorized, and choose not to participate in deportation crackdowns they see as unjust, self-defeating and harmful to public safety.”

Without in any way endorsing Trump’s view that sanctuary policies increase crime, our research suggests that claims that cosmopolitan desires for openness explain sanctuary policies are at best misleading and at worst pure moral posturing. The claims are misleading because outcomes from policy choices of left-of-center governments on land-use and labor-market regulation directly contravene the apparent purpose of the sanctuary policy (i.e., offering refuge to non-citizens, including undocumented immigrants) by reducing access to housing and labor markets. Because undocumented immigrants, and the broader group of non-citizens, generally have fewer U.S.-based family connections and a lower earning potential than citizens, they are more sensitive to local regulations that reduce access to housing and labor markets. The reduced access to housing and labor markets then reduces the undocumented immigrant and non-citizen population share.

Using data from the largest US counties (population of 100,000 or more), we show that: 1) declines in the relative size of the non-citizen population pre-date the sanctuary policies and are confined to counties that ultimately adopt the sanctuary policies; and 2) reduced access to housing and labor markets predicts both sanctuary policy adoption and negative changes in the relative size of the non-citizen population. We examine non-citizens because data on undocumented immigrants is limited. However, our evidence suggests that our conclusions hold for the undocumented as well.

Figure 1 (below) shows the trend over time in the average county percentage of non-citizens from 2007 to 2017 for both counties that ultimately enact sanctuary policies and those that do not. The percentage of non-citizens in the average sanctuary county is generally higher than the average non-sanctuary county. More importantly, the percentage of the population that is noncitizens falls over time (with the exception of the 2010 bump) in the sanctuary counties and this decrease accelerates after about 2014 when most of the sanctuary counties enact their policies.  By contrast, the trend in the non-citizen population percentage in the non-sanctuary counties is relatively stable over time.


Figure 1. Noncitizen Proportions for Sanctuary and Non-sanctuary Counties 2007-2017

This falling non-citizen population share is the result of lower access to housing and labor markets in sanctuary locations. The reduced access follows from more labor- market and land-use regulation that in turn causes higher rents, higher unemployment, and lower homeownership. For 2010, median rents are $152 dollars higher in sanctuary counties (sanctuary: $817; non-sanctuary: $665) – a 22.8% difference – and the unemployment rate is more than a full percentage point higher (sanctuary: 10.4%; non-sanctuary: 9.2%). In addition, homeownership rates are about 4.5 percentage points lower in sanctuary locations (sanctuary: 65.0%; non-sanctuary: 69.6%). The association of rents, unemployment, and homeownership with sanctuary policies persists even after controlling for traditional measures of ideology and a series of other demographic and economic variables. Importantly, these same measures of access to housing and labor markets also predict declines in the share of non-citizens. That is, high rents, high unemployment, and lower homeownership are associated with subsequent declines in the percentage of non-citizens. 

So why would counties that enact policies that cause reductions in the noncitizen population share also choose sanctuary policies and justify the sanctuary policies using appeals to openness? One possibility is that officials do not generally appreciate the effects of land-use and labor-market regulations. However, it is unlikely that officials do not understand that high levels of land-use and labor-market regulation reduce access to housing and labor markets and decrease the non-citizen population share. Zoning regulations are a significant portion of land-use regulations and it is well known that a significant body of case law assesses the allegation that zoning is a mechanism to exclude the poor.

Another possibility is that the regulation and sanctuary policies may simply follow from the same underlying left-of-center political preferences. These political preferences, in turn, may reflect a desire to assemble a winning electoral coalition. Over time, officials learn that sanctuary policies increase their probability of electoral success based on feedback from elections and interactions with voters.

In this view, officials may seek to allay concerns of some voters that current land-use and labor-market regulations exclude non-citizens, not by reducing the regulations, but rather by enacting sanctuary policies that suggest concern for non-citizens (or undocumented immigrants). When officials decline to deregulate land use and labor markets and instead adopt sanctuary policies, they may be unaware that sanctuary policies have little value to non-citizens and undocumented immigrants. In this case, recognition that the policies fail to stem the reductions in the non-citizen population share may lead to a reconsideration of land-use and labor-market regulations.

However, it is also possible that the combination of high-levels of land-use and labor-market regulation reflects fully informed choices by officials; officials do not wish to alter the level of land-use and labor-market regulation and adopt sanctuary policies regardless of their value to non-citizens or undocumented immigrants. Under such conditions, sanctuary policies have more value to liberals (or beneficiaries of the land-use and labor-market regulations) than the immigrant populations they are ostensibly intended to protect. 

As any recent migrant to New York City will attest, rent regulations protect insiders. You do not move to New York from Kansas and sign a lease for a rent-controlled apartment. This is the case with land-use and labor market regulations more generally; regulations confer benefits to insiders. To protect the rents that flow to insiders from these regulations, political officials may build political coalitions using appealing narratives that conceal the underlying interests holding the political coalition together. This appears to be the mechanism driving the popularity of sanctuary policies.  

Read the UAR article here.

Photo by Nitish Meena on Unsplash

Author Biographies

Donald Vandegrift is a professor of economics at the College of New Jersey. His primary research areas are urban issues and experimental/behavioral economics. His urban research considers crime and policing as well as the economic development effects of large institutions, transport projects, and open space. His experimental/behavioral research considers the effect of behavioral norms and compensation schemes on risk taking, unproductive activities (i.e., sabotage), and decisions to compete.


Zachary Weyand is a 2018 graduate of the College of New Jersey. He is Supervisor of Pricing & Promotions at Wakefern Food Corp.