EthanBenn, Staff Reporter
“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
Though written nearly two-hundred years ago, these words, forever associated with one of the grandest symbols of the United States, have taken on an interesting meaning during renewed debates over immigration. The center of the national debate over undocumented immigration is now not Washington, D.C. but Oakland, California. Several weeks ago, Mayor Libby Schaaf intentionally warned her community before an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid to apprehend and deport undocumented criminals occurred, sparking the ire of ICE and conservatives. The Trump administration’s decision to move against California’s sanctuary city policies certainly hasn’t helped to cool down the issue.
First of all, the term “sanctuary city” has no legal definition or standing – there is no specific checklist of requirements for a town or other municipality to become a sanctuary city. However, most cities described as such have several characteristics in common, the foremost being that local leaders and officials discourage or even outlaw their own police forces from asking persons about their immigration status or cooperating with federal immigration authorities. The latter happens after an undocumented immigrant is already apprehended, and when ICE issues a request to extend their detainment in order to deport them (Vox goes further into depth in this video) Regardless, this “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to illegal immigration is meant to foster a sense of community and security between local law enforcement and those they serve, as well as push migrants towards social services like hospitals and schools. It’s important to note that even though a town, city or county may not be cooperating with ICE, the person apprehended by the police can still be deported at a later date.
Unsurprisingly, the complicated interactions between federal and state (or local) authorities over the even more divisive and undefined policy of sanctuary cities poses, as I see it, a few questions: (1) What gives mayors and city councils the jurisdiction to designate their municipalities as sanctuary cities, and why do they? (2) When the federal government (or the agencies which represent it) come into direct conflict with local authorities over actions and policy, who “wins?” (3) If the Republican party claims to be for states’ rights, is it unprincipled for its members to not support state and local governments who decide to be sanctuary states and cities, respectively? With any luck, these three questions will give us some place to start.
With that rough definition out of the way, we can dive into the how and why of sanctuary city policies. To me, the answer is in the name itself- they’re sanctuaries. Mass migrations of people out of Mexico and Central America and into these counties and towns, albeit illegally, is a continuation of a historical theme. “The concept of sanctuary derives from the ancient imperative to provide hospitality to the stranger,” writes Elizabeth Allen for the LA Times, and “the sanctuary cities of the 2000s are part of this American tradition.” In a country which preaches the equality of opportunity and egalitarianism and whose citizens generally claim it to be the best place in the world to live a successful life, having refuges for families who’ve trekked hundreds of miles through desert and rough terrain is morally and ethically correct. After all, only a few cities have policies like this. While the reasoning of “it’s the right thing to do” is admittedly weak, it really seems to be one of the main arguments for sanctuary cities.
But warm feelings and compassion don’t supercede the law- federal agencies and local police departments often find themselves at odds because of sanctuary policies. So which is superior, and why? I’m inclined to say the federal government, especially due to something known as the “Supremacy Clause:”
This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.
This clause essentially states that the laws made by the federal government, (assuming they are constitutional) are supreme to state regulations and legislation. While I’m no constitutional scholar, I would assume this also applies to the agencies which execute federal laws. And now the scale has tipped further into the federal government’s favor, as the Trump administration’s Department of Justice moves to sue the state of California over their sanctuary state status. Via CNN: “‘The Department of Justice and the Trump administration are going to fight these unjust, unfair, and unconstitutional policies that have been imposed on you,’” [said] Sessions [to] law enforcement officers at the California Peace Officers Association … ‘“We are fighting to make your jobs safer and to help you reduce crime in America. And I believe that we are going to win.’” Generally, when the federal government decides to fight against states, it comes out the winner, and this does put mayor Libby Schaaf and other pro-sanctuary politicians in an interesting legal predicament. Some members of the GOP have advocated that they be tried for treason for failing to uphold federal law, but what about all the times they’ve encouraged states to shirk national policies in favor of their own local ones?
Health care. Environmental protections. Gay marriage and LGBTQ rights. Gun control. Tax cuts and reductions. If members of the Republican party and American conservatives want to accuse Democratic mayors of shielding undocumented immigrants, and in the process, meddling with the enforcement of federal laws, then they need to acknowledge their past sins as well. From crying “leave it to the states!” to clinging onto the Tenth Amendment as close as possible, it is beyond hypocritical for those opposed to sanctuary cities, but who also opposed following the policies of the Obama administration, to suddenly fall in line behind the Trump administration’s crusade against sanctuary cities. Apparently, the federal government suddenly ceases to be a behemoth of oppression against states when Republicans are in charge.
Regardless, none of this changes what mayor Schaaf did, and what other mayors, city council members, sheriffs and police officers will likely do themselves. Whether she wanted to or not, and I certainly hope she didn’t intend to, Schaaf did help truly criminal undocumented immigrants escape ICE- not families of four, mind you, but gang members, robbers and thugs. Schaff and other advocates for these types of policies are right in that it’s incredibly important not to mix people who came to this country illegally for a chance to work and raise a family with drug smugglers and undesirables, who come to the United States to incite violence and ruin communities. This goes both ways, though- if you don’t want ICE to target relatively innocent families, then don’t allow criminals to hide behind them as a shield, as announcing an imminent raid doesn’t help anyone.
And to cap it all off, I don’t think anyone person mentioned in this article is one-hundred percent correct about the issue- Sessions, Schaaf and so many others are really, in my opinion, exploiting this issue for personal gain. Deporting criminals looks good to the American right as it continues to push the Trump administration’s “rule of law” sentiment, and claiming to protect innocent migrants is the heartwarming story that liberals and progressives can’t get enough of.
Illegal immigration into America, and the sanctuary cities that result from it, aren’t going to be solved by simple, ideological solutions. There must be some sort of balance between upholding the laws of the United States and remaining morally principled- undocumented immigrants are people, too. With any luck, that solution might come soon.