Viewpoints

Sanctuary cities are the unicorn of the immigration debate

Ruben Navarrette
Ruben Navarrette

Recently, there have been stories about how the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump is likely to shake up the immigration debate by targeting so-called “sanctuary cities.”

You may know the term. These are liberal places run by Democrats where, as legend has it, illegal immigrants can go to escape deportations by federal authorities. The list of cities includes Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Philadelphia, New York and others.

And you have local officials like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel advancing the legend by vowing to protect their cities – and the undocumented people who live there – from any attempt by the dastardly Trump administration to deport them.

Careful with that one. Emanuel is no friend to illegal immigrants. After pushing for deportations when he worked for two presidents – Bill Clinton and Barack Obama – and helping to keep immigration reform off the congressional agenda while serving as a top lieutenant to then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, he holds the distinction of actively thwarting the interests of the undocumented at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

I see three problems with the whole notion of sanctuary cities.

First, this is not nearly the tense standoff that the media would like it to be. No one is blocking the schoolhouse door.

Does anyone seriously believe that there is this mythical land where immigration law doesn’t apply? Can you imagine if any of this were actually true? The marketing campaigns on Spanish-language television would call out to illegal immigrants: “Move to San Francisco, and live out the rest of your days free from the worry of ever being deported! Mi city es tu city.”

Just as there is no city in America that is off-limits to the Internal Revenue Service or the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the reality is that there no place in this country where illegal immigrants can hide from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Second, it’s true that some of these cities have lawyered up and approved carefully worded ordinances that stop police officers from cooperating with immigration agents unless certain conditions are met.

But beware of the word “unless.” You’d be surprised how easily these conditions can be met. When you take a closer look, you’ll see that these ordinances – in addition to being non-legally binding, symbolic and largely meaningless – were also written in such a way as to allow for plenty of cooperation between local and federal authorities.

In Chicago, the statute prohibits police from providing ICE officials with access to undocumented people in custody, unless officers are “acting pursuant to a legitimate law enforcement purpose that is unrelated to the enforcement of a civil immigration law.” So police aren’t supposed to turn over illegal immigrants to immigration officials unless they are wanted on a criminal warrant or have serious criminal convictions.

That’s an awfully broad exception that could apply to a lot of people, including anyone who has ever been convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol. In fact, since the Chicago ordinance allows for cooperation to deport criminals, it should fit in nicely with what Trump seems to be planning: a targeted deportation effort aimed squarely at those illegal immigrants who have criminal records.

Don’t believe the hype. You’ve heard of “show trials” in court, or “show votes” in Congress. Well, many of these are “show ordinances.” These stunts allow liberals to feel good about themselves, and they advance the falsehood that cities and municipalities can boss around the federal government. Yet they’re not worth much.

And third, immigrant advocates worry that Trump will deny federal funding to these localities until they stop obstructing the federal government.

See above: That’s not happening. The Obama administration managed to get around these laws well enough to find and deport nearly 3 million people in eight years, including many who resided in the sanctuary cities. There are many loopholes, and cops and politicians are experts at taking advantage of them.

No one is losing any funding over sanctuary cities. That would require action from Congress. And what is Congress anyway, but a collection of representatives from various localities who were sent to Washington to protect and serve the folks back home? Even if it were serious about the funding threat, the White House would likely never get the votes to carry it out – not even from Republicans.

The myth of sanctuary cities isn’t a legal concoction, but a political one. As such, it shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Contact Ruben Navarrette at ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

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