Deportations Reduce Crime? That’s Not What the Evidence Shows


Anna Flagg

c.2019 The New York Times Company


In one of Donald Trump’s earliest moves as president, days after his inauguration, he revived the deportation program known as Secure Communities.

roponents argue that it helps prevent crime and also increases the police’s ability to solve crime through collaboration with federal immigration enforcement. But a new study from the University of California, Davis, has cast doubt on the ability of Secure Communities to do either.

The program, involving cooperation between Immigration and Customs Enforcement and local police departments, began under George W. Bush in 2008. President Barack Obama expanded it drastically during his first term but in 2014 discontinued it.

Jurisdictions across the country rolled out the program in varying ways. Some places had few or no deportations; in others, deportations approached or even exceeded half a percent of the local population. Some introduced the program as early as 2008, while others didn’t begin until 2013.

The nationwide examination of over a thousand local areas before and after they adopted Secure Communities found a consistent outcome: Places that deported the most appeared no safer than those that deported the fewest.

Researchers compared deportations data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University with crime rates from the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program, finding no relationship between deportations and crime. They also saw no effect of deportations on violent or property crime, regardless of how aggressive deportations were in a given area.

Crime has been declining in many areas across the country for decades, and it continued to do so under Secure Communities. If deportation were an effective crime-prevention method, places that deported the most would display larger decreases in crime than other areas. No trends like that were observed.

National spotlight on Nashville

Nashville, Tennessee, introduced one of the most aggressive versions of Secure Communities, starting gradually in 2010. By the program’s end in 2014, more than 1,600 people in the city had been deported — almost half a percent of its working-age population.

Since Trump restarted the program in 2017, the situation for Nashville’s immigrants in the country illegally has only gotten worse, said Mary Kathryn Harcombe, a lawyer and legal director at the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition. She recalled the effect on local law enforcement of Trump’s early policy memos shifting deportation priorities away from those convicted of serious crimes.

“There was no prioritizing,” she said. “Everybody is fair game. The use of the criminal justice system was no longer based on the concept of, somebody who has committed a crime is more dangerous — it was simply a dragnet system.”

The immigration debate in the Nashville area has drawn national attention. In 2008, a routine traffic stop led to the arrest of Juana Villegas, who was nine months pregnant and turned out to be driving without a license and to have previously been deported. Detained for almost a week, she gave birth in custody, cuffed to a hospital bed much of the time.

This summer, neighbors and activists formed a human chain around a man and his 12-year-old son to keep away ICE officers seeking to apprehend them in their vehicle. More recently, an ICE agent opened fire after approaching a truck in a grocery store parking lot. The driver, who an ICE spokesman said had been previously deported, was shot twice as he tried to drive away, and later turned himself in to authorities. The FBI, which is investigating, said it had not yet arrested or charged the man.

The Nashville-Davidson County Sheriff’s Office expressed support for cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities.

“We believe if someone is criminally active in the community and also wanted by ICE, it is responsible to cooperate,” Karla West, the office’s chief of staff, said via email. “We will continue to bring a balanced, responsible approach to this subject regardless of the political environment.”

Throughout, a coalition of city policymakers, lawyers and immigrant advocates have battled to disentangle the city’s government agencies from ICE operations. They’ve called on the Nashville sheriff to stop renting bed space for ICE detention. They’ve also asked local agencies to limit their employees from sharing information about custody, release dates or court appearances — and to stop complying with ICE detainer requests that lack a judicial warrant.

In response, Tennessee passed a bill withholding funding from any city that limits cooperation with ICE. “The state law appears to be specifically aimed at Nashville,” Harcombe said. “We are a blue island in a red sea.”

Findings consistent with other research

Many Americans say illegal immigration is itself a crime (it is a civil violation or a misdemeanor, depending on if a person overstayed a visa or crossed the border without authorization). And some say immigrants in the country illegally are unlikely to report crimes committed against them by other immigrants in the country illegally.

But the study’s findings are consistent with literature suggesting that deporting immigrants would not be an effective way to address crime. Research demonstrates that immigrants overall and immigrants in the country illegally in particular are less likely to be arrested than the native-born population; that both are less likely to be incarcerated; and that immigration does not raise an area’s local crime rates (neither does illegal immigration).

The paper also evaluated claims that Secure Communities could help the police solve crimes more effectively through information sharing. Comparing clearance rates — the rates at which reported crimes are marked as resolved by police — again showed no effect. Crimes were solved at similar rates regardless of the aggressiveness of deportations in an area.

Relative to the rest of the country, overall crime in Nashville before Secure Communities and after the program was similar. Still, surveys show 1 in 5 Nashville residents are in favor of deportations, one of the strongest shows of support in the country.