James Schwab, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, resigned earlier this month saying that he could no longer “bear the burden” of spreading false information for Attorney General Jeff Sessions and ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan. Coming on the heels of the Justice Department’s much-ballyhooed lawsuit against California, Schwab’s resignation shined an important light on Sessions’ efforts to fabricate a link between so-called “sanctuary” policies and dangers to public safety. The attorney general has made an art form out of tying sanctuary policies to public safety threats, but he has it backwards. Sanctuary policies are rooted in anti-crime efforts and traditionally have been designed to protect immigrants and citizens alike.

Today’s sanctuary policies descend from a Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) directive from 1979. Unique at the time, Special Order 40 prohibited police officers from booking defendants with federal illegal entry charges and from initiating police action solely aimed at discovering an individual’s immigration status. The order stated that the LAPD was “sensitive to the principle that effective law enforcement depends on the high degree of cooperation between the Department and the public it serves.” By enacting this policy, the LAPD aimed to facilitate the interaction between the undocumented community and the police and thereby “increase the Department’s ability to protect and serve the entire community.”

Ten years later, New York City took this idea one step further. Executive Order 124 prohibited city employees from providing immigration officials with the names of undocumented individuals who sought police protection, medical care, or educational opportunities for their children. The New York City order held that “it is to the disadvantage of all city residents if some who live in the city are uneducated, and adequately protected from crime, or untreated for illness.” Although it was adopted by then-Mayor Ed Koch, Rudolph Giuliani, once he became mayor, used this same reasoning to explain the order’s importance, saying it “protects the health and safety of all the citizens of the city, not just that of the illegal and undocumented aliens” because a disease or a criminal that attacks an undocumented immigrant may attack a U.S. citizen next.

All citizens have an interest in the fight against crime and disease. Since immigrants might not seek police or medical services if such care would threaten their residency, cities like Los Angeles and New York City bowed out of the immigration-enforcement game. These cities, and the ones that followed them, chose to prioritize fighting crime – acts of moral turpitude with serious physical and financial harms – over enforcing civil immigration violations.

Although it is not apparent from President Donald Trump’s or Sessions’ rhetoric, federal law enforcement officials regularly do the same thing. On an institutional level, the federal government offers “U” and “T” visas to crime victims who agree to cooperate in certain criminal prosecutions. More informally, federal agents and prosecutors, who have to cajole information out of undocumented witnesses, often obtain their cooperation by promising not to turn them into immigration authorities.

I was one such federal prosecutor. In preparation for one of my trials, our team came across fact witnesses who were undocumented residents. The witnesses were hesitant to cooperate because of their fear of deportation. No one on the team hesitated to assure the witnesses that we would not inform immigration officials about their status. Solving a crime was clearly more important than deporting immigrants who came here looking for economic opportunity.

Sanctuary policies are the same assurances, scaled to a systemic level. Now, data indicates that such policies correlate to reduced crime. Researchers at the University of North Carolina found that harsh immigration enforcement by local authorities tends to chill resident cooperation with police. Similarly, a study by the Center of American Progress found that counties with sanctuary policies had 35.5 fewer crimes committed per 10,000 people than counties without sanctuary policies.

This is not a lesson for law enforcement alone. While enforcement officials can use sanctuary policies to help reduce crimes, immigrant rights advocates can use the policies’ effects on crime to help immigrants. I saw this firsthand in 2005 when I was part of a team of advocates, lawyers and students who helped develop a set of sanctuary policies for the city of New Haven, Conn. Many of us, myself included, promoted the policies for moral reasons, seeing them as a balm for – if not a complete remedy to – a broken immigration system. However, we were successful in getting the policies passed when we focused on the public safety benefits for the whole community. This can be a winning strategy elsewhere.

In the end, the Trump administration’s public safety arguments are nothing more than a cover. Trump and Sessions have long been opponents of immigration – legal or illegal. Their actions against California are simply the latest salvo in the administration’s anti-immigrant push and its continued politicization of law enforcement. But do not be fooled. The mantle of public safety belongs to the proponents of the sanctuary movement. They should take it back.


Image: Spencer Platt/Getty