SAN DIEGO – Talk about putting the cart before the horse.
That’s what the Trump administration, and Republicans around the country, did when the conversation turned to sanctuary cities. They got all worked up. They declared their opposition. They threatened to withhold federal funding.
All before they had even defined the term.
I knew the right-wingers were stuck out in left field. For months, I’ve been going on radio shows and jousting with conservative hosts over sanctuary cities, these fabled slices of paradise where the undocumented are supposedly unbothered. Every host had a different definition of what constitutes a sanctuary city.
It’s where illegal immigrants live out their days without fear of deportation, said one.
No, it’s where local city officials try to hide illegal immigrants from federal authorities, said another.
No, it’s where county jails won’t hand over to immigration agents inmates who are undocumented, said another.
No, it’s where local police refuse to help federal immigration agents round up illegal immigrants, said another.
These people talk for a living, yet no one knew what the heck he was talking about. Whenever a conservative rants about sanctuary cities, he is usually guided by emotion. You can actually hear the machinery in his brain shut off.
Recently, as a public service, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued an official definition of what “sanctuary” really means. And, it’s a lot more restrained than many of us would have feared – coming from Sessions, who has long been a critic of sanctuary cities, however he defined them.
But be careful with anything Sessions says about immigration. As someone who claims to support legal immigration but, as a senator, authored an amendment to limit it, Sessions talks out of both sides of his mouth on the issue.
And he’s all over the lot on the question of whether local police departments should be free of federal interference. He favors local autonomy when it comes to civil rights oversight, but opposes it on sanctuary cities.
Nevertheless, here is what Sessions has put forth – in a May 22 memorandum to Justice Department employees – as the administration’s official definition of a sanctuary.
While acknowledging that it is up to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly to designate a town, city, county or state a “sanctuary jurisdiction,” the attorney general tries to lend a helping hand. As Sessions sees it, a “sanctuary jurisdiction” is one that attempts to “prohibit” or “restrict any government entity or official from sending to, or receiving from, [federal immigration officers] information regarding the citizenship or immigration status, lawful or unlawful, of any individual” consistent with federal code 8 U.S.C. section 1373(a).
Moreover, Session writes, in order to be deemed a “sanctuary,” a jurisdiction must go out of its way to “willfully refuse to comply with 8 U.S.C. 1373.” At the same time, he makes clear, “a jurisdiction that does not willfully refuse to comply with section 1373 is not a ‘sanctuary jurisdiction.’”
Finally, while Sessions admits that the definition he has set forth is “narrow,” he also reaffirms the Justice Department’s “ability to point out ways that state and local jurisdictions are undermining our lawful system of immigration or to take enforcement action where state or local practices violate federal laws, regulations or grant conditions.”
Plow through the legalese and double-talk, and you quickly see that this definition could have been much worse, which is to say much broader. Quite unexpectedly, this gives state and local police officers who don’t want to moonlight as immigration agents plenty of wiggle room to get out of that assignment.
All the definition covers is information-sharing about possible illegal immigrants. And if a jurisdiction does decide to buck authority and resist that requirement, all it has to do is claim that the resistance wasn’t “willful.”
Common sense may prevail after all. We don’t require FBI agents to write speeding tickets, and nor should we require local police officers to enforce federal immigration law. Doing so makes it hard for immigrants to come forward when they’ve been robbed, raped or beaten by real criminals. Word gets out that the foreigners are easy prey because they’re afraid to go to the cops lest they be deported. Crime rates go up.
Like much of the Trump administration, Sessions isn’t very smart when it comes to immigration. By cracking down on so-called sanctuary jurisdictions, Mr. Tough Guy believes he’s fighting crime. He’s actually fueling it.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is email@example.com.