Fear of immigrant criminality is driving many changes to domestic immigration enforcement programs during the Trump administration. One of the earliest such changes was the reactivation of the 287(g) program that allows state or local law enforcement agencies to enforce federal immigration law after entering into a partnership with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The Obama administration substantially scaled back 287(g) after numerous government reports found serious flaws in the program. Gaston County, North Carolina sheriff Alan Cloninger said his sheriff's office enrolled in 287(g), “for the protection of the citizens of Gaston County." Sheriff Cloninger's desire to increase public safety is the primary reason, if not the only reason, why 76 local and state level law enforcement agencies across the country have enrolled in 287(g).
Surprisingly, there is little research on whether 287(g) had any effect on crime. To test whether 287(g) had its intended effect, Cato research associate Andrew Forrester and I investigated whether 287(g) adoption actually lowered crime rates in North Carolina counties where it was established. From 2003 through 2013, we find no statistically significant relationship between crime rates in counties that adopted 287(g) agreements relative to those that did not in North Carolina. Importantly, we look at the number of deportations due to 287(g) enforcement by county, which allows us to examine 287(g)’s specific effects. This means that 287(g) failed to reduce crime in counties where it was activated prior to 2013 when the Obama administration canceled many 287(g) agreements across the country.
In North Carolina, the crime-prevention justification for 287(g) does not hold but neither does the primary critique that it would raise crime rates by reducing citizen cooperation with the police. It is possible that immigrants in 287(g) counties reported fewer crimes due to fear of immigration enforcement and, thus, an increase in crime would not be recorded in official statistics. However, some crimes, like murder, are difficult to hide and tend to be reported regardless of local immigration enforcement policies. To account for this, we further break down the crime rates by the offense and find no relationship between 287(g) and murder or any other individual crime. Since crime rates did not increase after 287(g) adoption in North Carolina counties, it did not impact trust between local police and the population enough to affect crime rates.
The only statistically significant relationship that we did find was an increase in the average number of assaults against police officers in 287(g) counties. We do not know why 287(g) is causally related to the increase in assaults against police officers and we do not know the identities or characteristics of those who committed them. Besides otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants who are deported as a result of 287(g) and their American friends, families, consumers, employers, and landlords, police officers in North Carolina also appear to be victims of this program that fails to reduce crime.
Almost 62 percent of the 287(g) agreements currently in effect, 47 out of 76, were signed after President Trump took office. In the coming months and years, many more state and local law enforcement agencies could also enroll in 287(g) out of the desire to reduce crime. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney recently said:
The intent [of 287(g)] was to make sure we're taking felons and gang members, who are violent, out of play . . . If you apply [the program] specific to those reasons, I think you'd have a totally different outcome. If you're asking everybody about their national origin, I think it's a different application. And so if it were as it were designed, I think it's a good tool. I don't know that it's being applied that way.
Our research addresses Chief Putney’s concern that 287(g) is not an effective anti-crime tool. The experience of North Carolina’s counties where 287(g) failed to reduce crime while it increased the number of assaults against police officers should at least be a warning to other counties and police agencies that are considering joining this program: It will not reduce crime.