Column: Why local law enforcement should not enforce federal immigration law

Published April 5, 2019

The Florida Senate is currently considering a bill, SB 168, that would require local law enforcement agencies to carry out all federal immigration enforcement requests. This bill is part of a two-year long national push to co-opt local authorities to divert limited law enforcement resources toward enforcing federal law. This law is unnecessary and will hurt the state of Florida.

Florida does not currently have any "sanctuary cities." Yet Gov. Ron DeSantis claims that this policy is necessary in order to "…stop incentivizing illegal immigration, which is unfair to our legal immigrants, promotes lawlessness and reduces wages for our blue collar workers."

The governor's comment is not rooted in fact.

First, the largest disincentive for undocumented immigrants was the 2008 recession, after which the flow of new immigrants began to be offset by the number of immigrants returning home due to lack of employment opportunities. Having immigration policies that better reflect the realities of the factors driving individuals to migrate would do more to address undocumented immigration than simply increasing spending or implementing more radical enforcement regimes.

For example, we could adjust the visa system to more accurately reflect where immigrants are coming from. The current system creates an unfair distribution of visas based on country-of-origin. The federal government is only now issuing lawful permanent resident visas to some immigrants from Mexico who had their applications approved more than 20 years ago. It is no coincidence that this country has the highest share of undocumented immigrants in the world. Undoubtedly, if we allowed people to come legally pursuant to a more reasonable process, they would.

Second, the general consensus among economists is that immigration increases wages and employment opportunities for the vast majority of U.S. citizens. American workers at the lower end of the income distribution ladder experience either no change in employment and earnings or a very small negative impact. Furthermore, historical evidence has shown that low-wage immigrant workers are more likely to be replaced by machines than by citizens. Recent media stories suggest that this is likely still the case.

The other argument for forcing local law enforcement to carry out federal immigration enforcement is the need to improve public safety. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has claimed that cooperation with ICE is necessary to make "sure that somebody who has already been arrested for a crime is not released into the community so they can wreak havoc and commit more crime."

But the reality is that, if passed, SB 168 would divert resources away from the prosecution of serious crimes toward deporting individuals who pose no serious threat to the public. It has been very well-documented that immigrants, regardless of legal status, commit crimes at substantially lower rates than citizens. And yet recent ICE data housed by Syracuse University shows that, under the current administration, a majority of ICE deportees either had no criminal convictions or had illegal entry or reentry to the U.S. as their most serious offense. Every dollar spent detaining and deporting people with little to no criminal record is a dollar we are not spending investigating and prosecuting serious crimes.

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The next concern is the potential for civil rights violations. Undocumented immigrants do not have to be convicted of a crime to be transferred to ICE custody, only arrested. Overzealous officers can potentially arrest suspected undocumented immigrants on the flimsiest of charges simply to book them into the jail and learn their immigration status. The charges do not have to stick. If they are found to be citizens or otherwise undeportable, then officers can simply drop the charges. This can lead to wrongful arrests and racial bias in policing.

Some evidence that local immigration enforcement programs have resulted in racial bias already exists Maricopa County, Ariz., had its 287(g) agreement revoked due to an "`ingrained culture' of racial bias and other civil rights abuses." My own research has found evidence that in Maryland arrests of Latinos rose as a result of the 287(g) program there. Finally, a recent study conducted in San Diego found that undocumented immigrants were 60 percent less likely to report a crime that they witnessed if they knew police were cooperating with ICE, and 43 percent less likely to report a crime where they were the victim. Rather than reducing crimes committed by immigrants, SB 168 will make crimes targeting immigrants more likely. This is a sorely misguided bill, and all Floridians should oppose it.

Michael Coon is an assistant professor of economics at the University of Tampa.