Cities of Refuge, Country of Refusal

 Hello or goodbye? (ericschnurer)

Hello or goodbye? (ericschnurer)

The first week of President Trump’s administration has seen a flurry of executive actions that begin to follow through on many of the promises he made during the campaign.  Though it seems to be a surprise to people, even some of his supporters, it shouldn’t be.

As troubling as this may be for opponents of the President’s agenda, and for the American economy and society overall, there are limits to what these executive actions can achieve. “Sanctuary Cities” will quickly serve as a test case on how effective they will be for the Trump Administration or how effective resistance will be.

On Wednesday, President Trump announced that sanctuary jurisdictions  (cities and counties that don’t cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)) “willfully violate the law by shielding aliens,” have caused “immeasurable harm to the American people and the very fabric of the Republic,” and will not be ‘eligible to receive federal grants.”

This means the Trump Administration intends to take draconian measures to force cities and counties into cooperating with ICE or risk losing millions if not billions of dollars of federal aid.  He now seems sincere about deporting all 11 million illegal Americans and wants local law enforcement agencies to be the foot soldiers by effectively deputizing them as ICE officers.  He has also set up a truly Orwellian department within ICE called The Office for Victims of Crimes Committed by Removable Aliens.

(This is an addition to his other executive orders on immigration outlining plans for building a wasteful wall along the Mexican border and banning Muslims (only from countries we've bombed) from entering the US.)

President Trump, the “law and order” candidate, might be unaware that the modern American concept of Sanctuary City actually started through efforts by law enforcement departments in the 1980s.  Many police officers found it difficult to work with communities with high-levels of illegal immigrants. They were attempting to do everyday community policing, but residents were fearful of cooperating.  Cops wanted to remove the fear of immigration status from hurting their greater mission of providing public safety.

Hundreds of cities and counties have followed suit over the following decades. Though there is some disagreement in law enforcement circles about this, many sherifs and chiefs continue to support sanctuary policies in the interest of public safety and budgetary limitations.  Many other social service agencies have adopted similar policies in the interest of public health and public education.  It's a federal issue, not a local one.

Contrary to President Trump’s anecdotes from the campaign, illegal immigrants are less likely to commit violent crimes than Americans.  It is outright demonization to suggest otherwise let alone to set up an additional federal bureaucracy to treat a vanishingly small problem.  These men, women, and children are not threats to the republic or to Americans.  They aren’t even threats to most Americans’ jobs. They simply want to be Americans (many of their children already are) and often do jobs most Americans don’t want to do.

Turning to New York City, it’s no surprise that it is a sanctuary city.  It has been for hundreds of years.  It’s a city built by, of, and for immigrants (including my grandparents). Today close to 40% of New Yorkers are foreign born residents.  Of that, over 500,000 are illegal immigrants, which is one of the largest concentrations in the country.  Yet NYC is also one of the safest cities in America.  Where is this hellscape of crime by Removable Aliens? It’s much more likely that the city would suffer by removing these men, women, and children from our workforce, our communities, and our culture. Just ask outspoken Trump supporter former Mayor Rudy Giuliani about what he said back in 1994:

“Some of the hardest-working and most productive people in this city are undocumented aliens," Giuliani said at the time. "If you come here and you work hard and you happen to be in an undocumented status, you're one of the people who we want in this city. You're somebody that we want to protect, and we want you to get out from under what is often a life of being like a fugitive, which is really unfair."

However, NYC and other cities are breaking the law.  The arguments for doing so have always been framed in practical terms for economic and public safety reasons, but they are still flouting federal laws.  Attempts to reform those laws famously failed in 2013 and fueled the rise of Trump.  And the Trump Administration is going to make NYC and the other jurisdictions pay.

It is unclear if this executive action (or his others) will succeed. Evidently the president didn’t even consult his own cabinet about his executive actions, which makes articulating policy fairly hard. And as President Obama found out with his own executive orders, President Trump can expect a flood of lawsuits

Mayor de Blasio and many others seem confident that the courts will strike down many of the threats associated with federal funding, but there are no guarantees.   It is clearly illegal to coerce local governments to compile with federal laws through denying funds. It is possible that NYC would lose millions of dollars for direct law enforcement support, but that would likely impact anti-terrorist efforts or Trump Tower security, which could cause political or personal headaches for the President.

There is a sad irony that in today’s world of religious conflict, xenophobia, and eroding liberalism sanctuary cities are under threat. They are a concept that spans all religions across thousands of years.  Cities of Refuge can be found in the Old Testament. They were places that granted persecuted individuals or individuals under threat a save harbor under religious and/or government protection. 

The entire founding myth of America is as a sanctuary city.  It is a tragic betrayal of American values. We've had similar periods of xenophobia and anti-immigration hysteria in our past, and they have all been self-defeating stains on our history.  I've always lamented how ahistorical we are as a country, but this current vitriol is heartbreaking and entirely avoidable. 

Most of these periods shared something in common - economic insecurity.  Blaming immigrants for that is seductive because it is easy.  Tackling the actual reasons for it are hard and involve challenging long-held assumptions by the working class and the ruling class.  There have been practical solutions on the table to address our current immigration challenges. Ones that respect the current laws, hold those who have violated them accountable, but allow these men, women, and children to remain in the country that they have called home and to remain productive members of our society.  Political cowardice and cynical misdirection have lead us to this point instead. 

It is cliché to refer to America as an immigrant country, but it is and remains so.  It is cliché to say that immigration is what creates the vibrancy of American society and its economy, but it has and continues to.   What is equally true, and should be equally comforting even to those who fear immigration, is that America remains America even if Americans change.  The only type of people who threaten America are those that wrongly think America shouldn't change.  If they succeed America will still change, but it will be for the worse.