This past week, the Norman City Council discussed whether to become a Sanctuary City. The Council decided not to adopt that as a formal label but also left in place the practice of city police not stopping or detaining anyone based on immigration status — a key element of sanctuary cities.

Nonetheless public opinion remains sharply divided on the issue of sanctuary cities and the closely related issue of illegal immigrants, as reflected in six Letters to the Editor published recently in the Transcript (Feb. 2 & 4) and in the discussion at the Council meeting. Opponents of sanctuary city status raised two concerns that warrant additional attention.

First, opponents argue, we should all support the laws of our country which currently oppose cities giving sanctuary to illegal immigrants.

Generally, yes, most of us feel we should support the laws of our country. But there are also times when unjust and inhumane laws need to be opposed. Remember the Boston Tea Party? Those participants were behaving illegally by the laws of their time. The Underground Railroad helped people seek freedom from the legal laws of enslavement in the South at the time. The people who provided safe refuge for Jews, hiding from the Nazis, were behaving illegally. More recently, Rosa Parks was disobeying the laws of her state when she sat in the front of the bus and refused to move to the back.

For many of us, the current laws that make legal immigration extremely difficult and that oppress those who come into our country undocumented, simply trying to escape the dangers and devastation in their country, are unjust and inhumane. These individuals want to obtain legal immigration, and we want to provide a safe refuge (one that does not, for example, separate parents and children) while they work their way through the long and expensive process that has recently and intentionally been made even more difficult.

Second, opponents feel and express concern about the possible rise in crime rates when immigrants come to sanctuary cities. That is obviously something no city wants, but does this actually happen? Is there any systematic research on this issue?

I searched the internet on this question and found the following three studies. In 2016, the Cato Institute (clearly a libertarian, not a left-wing, organization) conducted a study on this issue and concluded that legal and undocumented immigrants were less likely to be incarcerated than native-born Americans — and that likelihood appeared to be decreasing over time.

In 2019, the Urban Affairs Review published an extensive study of this issue. First, the researchers compared crime rates in multiple sanctuary cities before and after the passage of sanctuary policies and found that crime rates did not increase. Second, they compared sanctuary and non-sanctuary cities, carefully controlling for parameters such as population, race/ethnicity, education, economic indicators, and resident citizenship status. Their findings: Sanctuary policies had no effect on the rates of violent crime, property crime, or rape. Their conclusion: “The argument that illegal immigration is somehow linked to crime in any sort of meaningful way is simply not true.”

A third study, conducted by the Cato Institute in 2015, looked specifically at crime rates in the state of Texas. This study found that undocumented immigrants had a criminal conviction rate 50% below that of native-born Americans; the rate for legal immigrants was 66% lower! One possible explanation for this pattern is that immigrants, legal and undocumented, have much more to lose by committing crime and therefore are more easily deterred.

These studies mirror my own knowledge and observations of immigrants. Because they often come from places without the kinds of freedom we have here and without the job opportunities, they value and appreciate these conditions even more than those of us born here who can easily take them for granted. If we want to populate our country with hard working, patriotic citizens, we should seek ways to support immigration as much as we can, and not continually throw more and higher roadblocks in their way.

Should we also support illegal immigrants? Every undocumented immigrant I have met wants to be legal. But as noted in a 2017 article on this topic in The Atlantic, there are separate paths to legal immigration for different people, none of which are easy to navigate, most of which require expensive lawyers to facilitate, and some of which can take decades to get through.

Where does this leave us? My conclusion is that supporting immigrants — both legal and those who would like to be legal, would allow Norman to provide help for people who are likely to become the hardworking, patriotic citizens that we want and need, whether they remain in Norman or eventually make their contributions elsewhere in this country.

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