Immigration & Justice

New Study Says CA’s “Sanctuary State” Law Did Not Cause Crime to Increase, Feds Claim Otherwise

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

According to a soon-to-be-published study by researchers at the University of California, Irvine, the state’s so-called sanctuary law, Senate Bill 54, has not caused an increase in crime — contrary to what ICE and some local officials have recently been contending.

(For those who need a reminder,  SB 54, known as the California Values Act, essentially makes California a sanctuary state by limiting how much state and local law enforcement can cooperate with federal authorities to enforce immigration law.)

“Very little research to date has evaluated the connection between sanctuary policies and crime,” said study co-author Charis Kubrin, UC Irvine professor of criminology, law & society, “and no studies have examined SB 54’s impact in particular. Thus she and her UCI co-author decided to move into the breach.

Their research found that “sanctuary status had a null effect and, more broadly, suggest that major reductions in crime in the U.S. are unlikely to follow from any proposed changes to immigration policy,” Kubrin said.

Charis Kubrin, UCI professor of criminology, law & society

According to Professor Kubrin, and co-author and doctoral candidate, Bradley Bartos, the new study is the “first systematic analysis to be conducted on the impact of the measure since California’s sanctuary state status went into effect on Jan. 1, 2018, after being signed into law by former governor Jerry Brown in October 2017.

The methodology

The peer-reviewed Irvine study was presented pre-publication to other researchers and criminologists at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), where,  according to Science Magazine, it was positively received.

Those who attended were reportedly particularly interested in the methodology Kubrin and Bartos chose that they believed would best measure whether or not SB 54 had any kind of significant effect.

“Researchers who study the outcomes of public policy have difficulty linking particular policies to specific outcomes with confidence,” Kubrin explained, “because there’s no way to evaluate what would have happened if the policy had not been implemented.

David Schultz, of Science, who covered the AAAS meeting, noted that the ideal way to test the impact of SB54  “would be to divide California into two equal test regions,” and then enact the legislation in one region and not the other.  In other words, do a “controlled” study of the matter.

But, since obviously having such a “control” area would be impossible, Kubrin and Bartos used a different methodology, that they had pioneered in an earlier study They created a “synthetic” version of the state, in which no SB 54 was enacted, then compared it to actual California.

In order to create this synthetic California, the team searched the rest of the United States for areas that closely matched our state’s past patterns “when it came to rates of violent crimes and property crimes between 1970 and 2017,” then they created a “weighted combination” of those other states’ crime rates that closely matched California’s from 1970 to 2017.

(I know this stitched together faux state sounds weird and complicated, but hang in and you’ll find it’s really not.)

“None of the states that comprise Synthetic California enacted a state-level sanctuary policy prior to 2017,” wrote Kubrin, so when she and her partner compared the difference in 2018 crime rates between California and its synthetic counterpart,  that comparison reflects the impact of SB54 on crime on real-life California, according to Kubrin.

You can find a visual version of their answer in the two graphs below.

(You can also read a little more about how this worked in the researchers’ fact sheet: SB 54 Fact Sheet – Kubrin and Bartos)


A tale of two counties

The upcoming publication of the new study is both timely and bound to stir controversy among those who contend that SB-54 does, in fact, lead to more crime.

At the beginning of February, for example, Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes announced that crime in Orange County had gone up because of SB-54.

“SB 54 has made our community less safe,” Barnes told reporters.  “The two-year social science experiment with sanctuary laws must end.”

According to Barnes, in 2019, more than 1,500 inmates released from the OC jail system in 2019 had ICE detainers, meaning ICE wanted to be notified when each of those inmates has been released. Of those inmates, said Barnes, 238 were re-arrested in Orange County for new crimes, including assault and battery, rape, and robbery.

Concurrently, on February 5,  ICE posted its own press release quoting Barnes in exclamatory terms. “Unimaginable…” the post began, then went on to quote Acting ICE Director Albence who said,  “..the data released by Sheriff Barnes clearly demonstrates, all communities are safer when local law enforcement works with ICE.”

Nine days later, the New York Times broke the story that Federal ICE officials would secretly be deploying the U.S. Border Patrol Tactical Unit, known as BORTAC, in sanctuary cities across the nation, Los Angeles prominently included, as part of an aggressive arrest operation, which reportedly seemed to mean making ordinary immigration arrests using this elite, impressively armed group that functions essentially as the SWAT of Border Patrol.

Upon learning of the feds’ ICE SWAT plans,  Los Angeles city and county law enforcement officials were not at all thrilled.

On the same day the NY Times story ran, LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva released a statement making it very clear that the LASD was not on board.

“I strongly oppose this irresponsible deployment of federal SWAT agents in Los Angeles County for civil immigration enforcement,” Villanueva wrote.

“In 2019, I reduced ICE transfers by 53% and lowered serious crimes in Los Angeles County by 7%,” he said. “This debunks the White House’s claim that SB-54 and similar laws throughout the nation will somehow lead to an increase in violent crime. We cannot allow the federal government to weaponize our immigration system for partisan politics.”

The following day,  Mayor Eric Garcetti and LAPD Chief Michel Moore released their own version of those sentiments via video, making it clear that the Los Angeles Police Department would not be working with ICE either.  (The mayor also did a Spanish language version of the video.)

Kubrin and her co-author hope that their study will do some good when it comes to this and similar policy issues.

Senate Bill 54, they wrote, “has been blamed for rising crime, yet no research has evaluated this claim.”

Now, using a unique method of policy analysis, somebody has.


Kubrin and Bartos are reportedly planning a possible follow-up study that focuses specifically on parts of the state with large numbers of immigrants in order to further check their findings.

“Our analysis examined the law statewide,” Kubrin said,  “so while the net impact appears to be null, the experiences of local communities may vary considerably.” Future research, she said, “should investigate geographic patterns across California.”

Charis Kubrin, professor of criminology, law and society, has studied crime trends for 20 years, while study co-author Bradley Bartos, Ph.D. candidate in criminology, law and society, has co-authored leading texts on the synthetic control method.

Photo at top of page via California Immigrant Policy Center


  • The issue should not be “rising crime” but whether or not we should regulate the flow of illegal immigration into this country. S.B 54 is intended to impede the enforcement of Federal immigration law so the question should be: is this a good idea, and why?

    The idea of the ICE swat team comes from the fact that it is more dangerous to take an illegal immigrant into custody out in the streets than it is to simply have that illegal immigrant released into ICE custody while he’s still an inmate in jail.

  • I was going to comment on how creating a “synthetic California” would allow a biased researcher to easily tweak their study and allow them to come up with whatever result they desired. I have no doubt these researchers are biased, in fact it would probably career suicide for them to say illegal immigration was anything but a wonderful thing.

    Strange thing though, looking at the two graphs provided, “synthetic California” shows noticeably lower crime rates than real California in both categories ( from the enactment of sb 54 and onward). Celeste seems to ignore the graph provided in her own story. Funny stuff.

  • Dear Maj Kong,

    I added in an explanation from the study that says a bit more about what the graphic shows, which may help. When the full study comes out, we’ll link to it.

    In the meantime, it might also help to know that this study has been peer-reviewed, a process over which the researchers have no control. And, in case you’re interested, UCI’s Department of Criminology, Law and Society is ranked in the top five of such departments in the nation. You personally would no doubt like and agree with some of the researchers in the department more than others. That’s just personal preference. But to imply that the two scientists who have done this study are tweaking their research, or that this department would overlook the deliberate skewing of an outcome suggests bias on your end, not on theirs.

    May your Sunday evening be a good one.


  • “…UCI’s Department of Criminology…is ranked in the top five of such departments in the nation.”

    Where, I wonder, do its graduates go?

    Are there any in, say, the LASD or LAPD?

  • When it comes to institutions reenforcing the established orthodoxy, I admit , I’m going to be skeptical. I lack Celeste’s faith in elite institutions ,it’s been my experience that politics are everywhere, and when it comes down to it politics trump science.

    But this study did produce a graph that clearly show crime in California is as much as twice as high compared to a hypothetical California that did not pass sb54. So maybe there’s something too this pier review thing. Of course how Celeste and the researchers choose to interpret the data looks more like good old politics.

  • “Peer” means everybody has the same mindset, which is that enforcement of the immigration laws is Mean.

    Try & find a Trump supporter in the U.C.–Berkeley faculty.

  • Celest- My wife and brother in law both attended and graduated from UCI. My brother in law took criminology there and said it was the stupidest class he took. He said instead of studying about laws, there were learning about liberal ideology pertaining to laws. He bought the books needed for the class and hardly used any of them. Plus his professor, was the one spearheading most anti-American protests on campus. So tell me how this school is ranked so high in the nation again? Maybe the ranking system is as jacked up as the story in this article?

  • What a bunch of hooey. Simple fact is that IF these people were not here, the crimes they commit would not happen. This entire article is an academic exercise – what the hell does it matter if the overall crime rate goes up or down? There would be fewer crimes (overall) if these crooks were returned to their original country rather returned to our streets – unless, of course, you are naive enough to believe they’ve “learned their lesson.”

  • Thanks for that, proving once again that if the truth of a matter is to be found

    reader commentary must be read.

  • But this is the liberal mentality.
    Don’t judge all police by the actions of one.
    Yet, here we are and it’s partly due to the liberal disease that has infiltrated public education at every level.
    The UC system is a joke. Who determines what departments are #1?
    US News and World Reports? You can quickly research and find artificial inflation of weighted, reportable data and another broken system abused by universities to put fake trophies on their walls.

  • These waste of money studies are based from what data? Crime stats? Yeah, those are accurate. Gimme a break. It’s easy to sit in an office surrounded by like minded, anti-police peers with tenure and draw conclusions about subjects you’ve never had your hands dirtied by.
    Data=crap in, crap out.
    I’m sure in Candyland University it’s all good but down on the street, where it matters and data doesn’t lie, it’s a different story.

  • I was wondering about the methodology, instead of creating a fictional city/county/ state, why not look at it from a different point of view. The thought is the this bill would increase crime and MAKE THE STATE LESS SAFE. All the researchers had to do is look at the ICE detainees and see if any of those individuals were rearrested and for what crime.

    If they were giving to ICE and deported then their second crime wouldn’t have happen and crime would have been reduced.

    They can try and spin it all they want but the facts are what they are. If you remove a criminal via deportation there is a greater chance he/she will not commit another crime in the USA if they are not here. Mind you they might skip back into the country (which technically is a crime) but given the stronger border control it would be much more difficult.

    Sanctuary states have little to do with public safety and more to do with politics! A majority of illegal (undocumented) immigrants lean toward the Democratic agendas and the family members who are here legally (documented) will vote to keep their family members here illegally.

    California and New York are the greatest anti Republican states in the country so their entire agenda is to fight the Republican Party to the end.

    This study is factually debunked and has no business expressing its self as scientific in nature!

  • I could care less about the findings of this study. No city should be officially shielding those that enter this country illegally. If Congress can ever get anything done, perhaps they can work on immigration reforms that will provide for an efficient, reasonable entry process.

  • Right!

    His LinkedIn page says he received a Master’s degree in Public Policy from CalState–Long Beach and a Baccalaureate in Criminology from UCI, and he lateraled over to Irvine PD from LAPD in 1996 or thereabouts.

  • I always like to look at whose funding the study or anything for that matter. That’s usually the true tell. I wonder if the funding for this study is public record?

  • Nothing to see here, Villanueva says we’re safer with his plan.

    Albence said that last year ICE’s Enforcement and Removal officers arrested 143,000 aliens, 123,000 of which had been criminally convicted or had pending criminal charges, including 1,900 homicides, 5,000 sexual assaults, 1800 kidnappings, 45,000 assaults, 67,000 drug charges and 74,000 DUIs.

    “123,000 accounted for almost half a million crimes,” the chief officer added. “That’s almost four criminal offenses for each person we put in custody.”

  • To the authors of this article:

    I have one question. Does state law supersede federal law?

    If not, then all of this dog & pony show is a waste of time, money and effort.

    The real reason is not for emphatic reasons, but rather for political gains.

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