Editor’s Note: Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and a member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinions on CNN.
The Border Patrol will be sending elite tactical teams into “sanctuary cities” like New York and Chicago to help with immigration arrests. One hundred agents are being deployed to work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), including members of a unit that functions as the Border Patrol’s SWAT team, according to news reports.
Members of this unit carry stun grenades and receive Special Forces-like training, such as sniper certification. More agents are expected to be sent to Atlanta, Boston, Houston, San Francisco and other cities, according to the New York Times.
The escalation of the Trump administration’s war on sanctuary cities using these kind of tactics is alarming and unprecedented in its nature and apparent scope. The move is rooted in fear mongering and holds more potential to harm communities than to keep them safe. It is a political ploy that turns Border Patrol agents and immigrants into pawns for the President’s benefit.
Any debate over “sanctuary cities” is complicated by misconceptions about them. Not only is there no single definition of a sanctuary city – these vary by locality – the term is misleading. Generally, sanctuary cities are places that limit the participation of local agencies in federal immigration enforcement.
For undocumented immigrants, such cities are not a haven from the law. Sanctuary policies are simply a way for some localities to say to the feds, “You do your job (immigration enforcement) and we’ll do ours (protecting our communities).”
Many police chiefs support sanctuary policies because they help them develop trust with immigrant communities. This trust is important when the police need people to report crimes, or come forward as witnesses.
Now Trump is retaliating against sanctuary cities by sending in the Border Patrol. A Customs and Border Protection spokesman confirmed to the New York Times, which first reported the news, that the agency will be deploying officers to work in cities “in order to enhance the integrity of the immigration system, protect public safety, and strengthen our national security.”
But sending Border Patrol officers to work with ICE in cities undermines our immigration system. Congress has mandated that the Border Patrol protect our borders, while ICE handles interior enforcement. This distinction is important, as border agents are not trained to operate in large urban areas. Placing members of the Border Patrol’s elite SWAT teams in densely populated cities sounds like a recipe for disaster.
Sending Border Patrol agents to sanctuary cities is also a misuse of resources. With agents being deployed to the interior, that means fewer of them along the border, where smugglers, traffickers and cartels are active. (Indeed, according to US Customs and Border Protection’s own history page, an earlier, somewhat similar effort in the 1950’s was a bust: “In spite of the major successes in repatriation, many deportees simply turned around and recrossed the seriously undermanned border.”)
Instead, agents repurposed away from the border will be backing up ICE officers in routine arrests, which lately have included record numbers of undocumented immigrants with no criminal record. This will sow fear in immigrant communities and militarize metropolitan neighborhoods.
Immigrant advocates have denounced this new policy from the Trump administration. Yet they’re not the only ones expressing concerns about it. The former Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, Gil Kerlikowske, called the move a “significant mistake.” John Sandweg, the former head of ICE under Obama, said the policy was “dangerous” and “insulting to ICE agents who are more than capable enough to take care of any threats out there and have and do.”
The timing of this policy is problematic as well. It is surely no coincidence that Trump is sending Border Patrol agents into cities as the 2020 election approaches – and cracking down on sanctuary cities happens to be one of his signature issues.
Similarly, the increased presence of ICE and Border Patrol agents comes as immigrant communities are being urged to participate in the 2020 Census. This raises legitimate questions about whether the President is commandeering law enforcement officials to act in furtherance of his political interests.
The President and his allies are fond of saying that sanctuary cities refuse to turn violent criminals over to immigration authorities. In fact, sanctuary cities do hand over immigrants to ICE, provided the agency secures a warrant from a judge. And despite Trump’s grisly anecdotes, sanctuary cities are not hotbeds of crime.
A 2017 analysis by the Center for American Progress found that sanctuary cities had on average 15% lower crime rates than non-sanctuary cities. Another study found that two-thirds of the cities that had the highest jumps in murder rates in 2016 were not sanctuary cities. These findings are in addition to studies that show immigrants, including the undocumented, commit crimes at lower rates than the native-born.
Sending Border Patrol agents into sanctuary cities is inefficient, unnecessary, and potentially dangerous. The Trump administration’s latest immigration move is nothing but an empty show of force for his base.