sanctuary cities

Localism Is OK If It Means Less "democracy"

Make NYC Boss Again? (niemanrports/thomasnast)

Make NYC Boss Again? (niemanrports/thomasnast)

This week, President Trump has been busy trying to amass some “wins” for his 100-day mark (which, sure, is arbitrary, but sort of isn’t) and has taken two shots at cities to do so. The first is his (so far) failed attempt at “punishing” Sanctuary Cities and the second is his “skinny” tax cut plan which would presumably make good on proposed significant cuts to HUD.  Both cases highlight the specter of Federal cuts hanging over struggling cities in the Trump era, which has heightened the call for greater local control.  There are some sound arguments for ‘localism’ but they must include less democracy to make sense.

Before I get attacked for being a fascist or (even worse) a technocratic neo-liberal, let me explain what I mean by less democracy.  There are two naturally existing powers that make our quirky form of urban democracy uniquely dysfunctional.  These powers are currently harming our cities, each in their own way, and they would only get worse if cities were able to control themselves without federal intervention or oversight.  Both of these powers would have to be weakened significantly to make the types of changes our cities need. It’s unclear to me how exactly localism would do that.

The first power in urban politics is financial power.  As progressive and liberal as big coastal cities like NYC are in many ways, rich people that live in them still donate to and vote for rich people policies.  This means lower taxes, less regulation, and more privatization. These policies generally don’t help a lot of not-rich people, but get a lot of attention and support from elected leaders who need rich people’s money and support.

The idea that these folks would embrace (or, more cynically, allow) truly progressive politics to capture and distribute their mega wealth or undermine their political or social power to shape policy is…optimistic.  It’s much more likely that they would continue to find, support, and get elected Cory Booker-types to appeal to the left while diligently normalizing rightward policies that potentially undermine the civic health of the city in the long run.

The second power in urban politics is voting power.   As progressive and liberal as big coastal cities like NYC are in many ways, most people that live in them still vote against policies that change (or perceive to change) their neighborhoods too much. NIMBYISM is a unifying feature across all income-levels. A lot of people just don’t want taller buildings, greater density, or more homeless shelters in their neighborhoods. They don’t think that the short-term disruption they would endure would benefit them in the long run (which is true in many cases) and generally resist top-down or outside-in policy prescriptions.  

After the horrors of Urban Renewal (though federally funded, its programs were controlled at city and state level, infamously by Robert Moses in bulk) this reaction was understandable and necessary.  Community Boards, ULURP, historical preservation, and other policy tools were all successful attempts to localize power at the neighborhood level.

However, decades later, many of these same tools have devolved into reactionary platforms that can easily be gamed by incumbent interests at the expense of other constituencies in the present, who don’t know the ropes, or future residents who can’t be at CB meetings and the like. This doesn’t serve the city's civic interests either.

So the inherent problem with localism is thinking that even in liberal, progressive NYC, we all want the same thing.  If only we could stop sending so much of our money to DC, we’d get the political out comes we all want spending it locally. It’s obviously not that simple.

Financial power and voting power sometimes align in NYC, but for the most part have few shared political goals.  And even if they have shared goals, they don’t have shared strategies.  For example, would most voters want charter schools to replace public schools? Would most wealthy residents (or corporations) stay if their taxes went up significantly? What would the political environment look like if these two groups clashed endlessly for power? Would it actually produce better results for NYC?

We don’t have to speculate much on this scenario, because its how politics worked in NYC for generations before there was any federal intervention. The city’s long and colorful political history is dominated by the struggle between financial power and voting power, which constituted “democracy” at the time. 

Tammany Hall is perhaps the most infamous political machine in American history and dominated the voting power in NYC (mostly by corralling the immigrant working class) from the late 18th century well into the 1940s, occasionally losing power at the city or state level to various temporary reform coalitions backed by wealthy interests.

The consistent result of this political dynamic was a deeply, shockingly divided city.  For most of the 19th century and early 20th century, New York was the epicenter of modern capitalism’s contradictions: The highest levels of progress and culture and the lowest levels of squalor and brutality.  No level of municipal government, political machine, or private philanthropy could fix this generational poverty and inequality.  These institutions had no interest in challenging the status quo because, in many cases, they benefited from it. 

By the way, if you haven’t heard of Henry George, this is a good opportunity to check him out.  This type of normalized corruption is what prompted Mr. George to study contemporary urban capitalism and democracy.  His seminal work on the topic, Progress and Poverty (1879) is why he is considered the father of progressivism. He even tried (and failed) to run for Mayor in NYC against Tammany Hall.

I’m not suggesting that NYC would return to 19th century machine-style politics in a new form of localism, but this history shows how truly “local” politics tend to create extremely disconnected factions.  Corruption and demagoguery thrive in this environment. Even worse, these factions tend to stabilize around a mutually beneficial status quo that rarely serve the interests of the larger political body (in the present or future). It also shows how exceedingly difficult it is for new politics to enter this status quo once its established.

This to me is the great contradiction of promoting localism.  How can localism create the type of political room to change our current status quo? Would it simply mean greater power in the hands of a small elite? Would it also mean greater power in the hands of NIMBYists? These problems already exist with the current levels of federal involvement, how would removing that involvement fix them?

Returning to Henry George for a moment, he (like me if you can believe it) was an optimist and believed firmly in people.  Democracy to him was not a collection of token attributes achieved simply by voting.  It was an ever-changing intellectual and emotional forum for all people to challenge the purpose of our economic and political organization.  He saw the small-d ‘democracy’ of the Gilded Age as an affront to this ideal and as a threat to our republican form of government.  No doubt he would see today’s small-d “democracy” in a similar vein. 

I see the appeal of ‘localism’ in its basic sense.  Next week I’ll talk about some of the larger dangers that I think it could present, but there is nothing wrong with wanting more local control.  Who would actually wield that control and to what end is the great unknown. 

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.