Trump Can Wear Down Sanctuary Cities
Supporters of the sanctuary movement around the U.S. believe they have morality on their side. The deportation regime unleashed by President Donald Trump is largely indiscriminate.
In its short, arbitrary span, it has targeted a longtime resident and mother of American children in Phoenix. It has imprisoned (and perhaps slandered) a young man in Washington state who was protected under the executive action for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, which was signed by President Barack Obama and has yet to be rescinded by Trump.
It has ensnared two prominent neurologists in Houston, who were initially given 24 hours to pack with their children and return to India, where they haven't lived in 15 years. (They were subsequently given a "parole" of three months to enable them to deal with dozens of patients.)
The sanctuary movement insists on asking questions for which Immigration and Customs Enforcement has no particularly good answers. How is public safety advanced by deporting a woman who has lived here for two decades and raised an American family? Which coal miner in Appalachia lost his job to a pair of dedicated doctors in Houston? How is it cost-effective or humane to educate young people who know no other home, and then deport them to a strange land?
Sanctuary "has long been an escape valve for society when the law can't meet the deeper demands of justice," wrote Elizabeth Allen in a Los Angeles Times Op-Ed piece. "No legal system can perfectly implement justice in every circumstance. Sanctuary serves now as it has in the past as a corrective and a challenge to such imperfection."
The movement's moral claims are its strongest markers. But they may rest on shaky political ground. Public polling on sanctuary cities is highly variable, dependent on specific poll language and inferences about the criminality of immigrants.
National polls show consistently low support for mass deportation. Meanwhile, a recent CNN/ORC poll shows support for "developing a plan to allow those in the U.S. illegally who have jobs to become legal residents" rising steadily from 46 percent in 2015 to 60 percent in March 2017. In other words, public opinion is heading in the opposite direction of Trump policies.
But in one key respect, the Trump administration has time on its side. The undocumented population is estimated to be about 11 million. Any population that large -- more than the combined populations of Kentucky, Oregon and Iowa -- is bound to have a criminal element. And the Trump administration and its allies are poised to exploit that.
The FBI says there were an estimated 90,185 rapes in the U.S. in 2015, or 247 per day. Very few of those crimes draw national media attention. Yet when an undocumented teenager was accused of raping a high-school freshman in Maryland, it created a basis for news that political operatives can use.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer called the crime "horrendous and horrible and disgusting," while using it to advance Trump's agenda. "I think part of the reason the president has made illegal immigration and crackdown such a big deal is because of tragedies like this," Spicer said.
On March 20, the Department of Homeland Security began publishing a weekly report identifying noncitizens who had been charged with crimes but released by local jurisdictions. It's a campaign with two clear goals: to associate immigrants with criminality, as Trump did relentlessly throughout his campaign, and to blame sanctuary policies for aiding and abetting crime.
Americans are sympathetic to undocumented immigrants, but not to undocumented "criminals." A poll released in February that was sponsored by Harvard University and the Harris Poll asked: “Should cities that arrest illegal immigrants for crimes be required to turn them over to immigration authorities?” The overwhelming majority of respondents -- 80 percent -- said yes.
Even in California, the nation's beacon of immigration and multiculturalism, ambivalence about sanctuary cities is evident.
A recent University of California at Berkeley poll asked whether California cities and counties should "be able to ignore requests from federal authorities to detain undocumented immigrants who have been arrested and are about to be released." A slim majority of California registered voters, 53-47, said localities shouldn't be able to ignore federal requests.
Trump won't necessarily win this battle, despite the legal firepower of the Justice Department. Immigration activists will seek to highlight sympathetic victims of his policies whenever possible, and tie down the administration in court.
But in addition to having thousands of lawyers and immigration agents under his authority, Trump has a vast capacity to shape perception. He is an able and unashamed propagandist who will make the most of his opportunities.
If advocates for immigrants play down the criminality of the few, Trump will play it up, painting all immigrants as criminals. If advocates publicly acknowledge the criminal minority in an effort to disassociate them from the vast majority of undocumented immigrants, they do Trump's dirty work.
In the absence of an event capable of galvanizing public opinion behind immigrants, this is a war of attrition, one deportation at a time. That's a war Trump can win.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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