There is a passage in President Donald Trump’s executive order on interior immigration enforcement that bespeaks a certain amount of desperation:

To better inform the public regarding the public safety threats associated with sanctuary jurisdictions, the Secretary shall utilize the Declined Detainer Outcome Report or its equivalent and, on a weekly basis, make public a comprehensive list of criminal actions committed by aliens and any jurisdiction that ignored or otherwise failed to honor any detainers with respect to such aliens.

It is apparently hoped that the fear of bad publicity (and cuts in federal aid) will coerce localities into turning immigrants accused of crimes over to federal authorities for deportation. But a look at past federal immigration efforts to squeeze cooperation from “sanctuary” cities and counties across the country indicates it will likely fail. The resistance is deeply rooted because local authorities have a much greater fear than federal reprisal: what would happen in their communities if immigrants refused to cooperate with police.

The Obama administration tried to force local cooperation through its Secure Communities Program, but it backfired. On Nov. 20, 2014, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson canceled it with a memo that said:

The goal of Secure Communities was to more effectively identify and facilitate the removal of criminal aliens in the custody of state and local law enforcement agencies. But the reality is the program has attracted a great deal of criticism, is widely misunderstood, and is embroiled in litigation; its very name has become a symbol for general hostility toward the enforcement of our immigration laws. Governors, mayors, and state and local law enforcement officials around the country have increasingly refused to cooperate with the program, and many have issued executive orders or signed laws prohibiting such cooperation. A number of federal courts have rejected the authority of state and local law enforcement agencies to detain immigrants pursuant to federal detainers issued under the current Secure Communities program.

The program had been trumpeted as an effort to protect national security and public safety, but a 2013 analysis by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University found that roughly half of the people Immigration and Customs Enforcement wanted to detain had no record of a criminal conviction, “not even a minor traffic violation.” Leaving aside traffic violations and marijuana possession, two-thirds had no record of a conviction. TRAC found that just 14 percent of the 347,000 detainers issued over a 16-month period in 2012 and 2013 met ICE’s goal of targeting those who pose a serious safety risk.

Local law enforcement authorities trying to maintain good relations with immigrant communities would be ill-advised to go along with such a broad and unwarranted federal intrusion. And the Secure Communities Program led to widespread resistance: ICE lists 165 counties that passed legislation or adopted official policies restricting their cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

After Johnson relaxed the policy, he said cooperation  with local authorities improved: of the 25 largest jurisdictions that had restricted cooperation, 16 began working with ICE.

But another TRAC analysis of federal data found that even though local law enforcement agencies became more cooperative, ICE was assuming custody of its targeted immigrants less often. “The end result is that ICE has not improved its performance through its detainer program in apprehending individuals who the agency seeks to deport" [meaning those who are a serious danger to public safety], according to TRAC.

The Trump administration is making a lot of noise about how tough it is going to be on undocumented immigrants. But will it be more effective in removing the small number who are truly a danger? It seems to be repeating mistakes the Obama administration made under Janet Napolitano’s leadership of Homeland Security, but on a larger scale.

It may satisfy Trump to publicize immigrants' crimes -- he seemed to enjoy doing that in his campaign rallies -- but it will probably steel local resistance to his policies, not achieve cooperation.

Paul Moses is the author, most recently, of The Italian Squad: The True Story of the Immigrant Cops Who Fought the Rise of the Mafia (NYU Press, 2023). He is a contributing writer. Twitter: @PaulBMoses.

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