The Sanctuary Cities Debate


What is it about sanctuary cities that has prompted such heated exchanges between supporters and opponents, and why is President Donald Trump threatening to send detained immigrants to sanctuary cities represented by Democrats? Are the two sides engaged in a legitimate debate, or is this more of the cringe-worthy, bare-knuckle political fighting that we have seen festering over the past several years, moving to yet another major showdown in the 2020 elections?

As one might expect, the answer appears to be that the debate has elements of reasonable and genuine political and policy differences, while also serving to enable both sides to make a lot of noise as they pander to their political bases.

The concept of sanctuary derives from the historical imperative of providing hospitality to the stranger who is in trouble. In biblical times, a person who committed accidental murder could flee to a sanctuary city to live in safety, and free from retribution – albeit separated from the community. Similar protections have been enacted by communities around the world for centuries.

The sanctuary movement that is at the center of the current debate began in the late 1980s, when certain religious organizations began helping undocumented families fleeing Central American violence to settle in the United States, in direct defiance of U.S. immigration policy. Proponents of the sanctuary effort argue that it helps foster good relations between undocumented immigrant communities and law enforcement, that sanctuary policies are legal and are protected by the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (which provides for the separation of federal and state powers), and that undocumented immigrants need protection from unjust federal deportation policies that indiscriminately target law abiding immigrants, separate families, and cause people to live in constant fear of deportation. Those opposed to the movement argue with equal force that sanctuary cities harbor criminals and create a dangerous environment for U.S. citizens, sanctuary policies violate federal laws to which state and local governments are bound, and sanctuary activity prevents local and state police officers from doing their jobs.

The Trump administration has tried to compel states and cities to enforce federal immigration law by, among other things, trying to withhold federal law enforcement assistance grants to sanctuary cities that refuse to cooperate. But at least 10 different federal courts have declared the proposed sanctions to be unlawful, making clear that the withholding of those funds cannot be done without an act of Congress.

Shortly after an adverse court ruling last week, President Trump tweeted confirmation of a news report that the White House wants to send detained immigrants to sanctuary cities represented by Democrats. His theory seems to be that since many Democrats are proponents of sanctuary cities, their districts should be flooded with undocumented immigrants. Offended politicians and social activists shot back with moral outrage, and promised defiance.

The proposed further victimization of defenseless immigrants may score rhetorical points with elements of the president’s base, but piecemeal threats are no substitute for the comprehensive immigration plan that is needed. We urge the administration to focus on the bigger picture.

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