Can Cities Protect Their Immigrants from Trump?

(Photo: AP/Jeff Chiu)

The Reverend Annie Steinberg-Behrman, right, holds a sign while listening to speakers at City Hall in San Francisco on November 14, 2016, where leaders and community activists reaffirmed the city's commitment to remaining a sanctuary city.

America’s immigrants are not without defenses against Donald Trump’s pledge to ruin their lives, and their most powerful defenders are cities.

Cities didn’t vote for Donald Trump. Virtually all of the nation’s major cities—27 of the 30 largest—are governed by Democrats. Cities are where immigrants have clustered, for the time-honored reason why immigrants go anywhere: that’s where the jobs are. Cities are where immigrants reside in sufficient numbers and density to have built political power. Many of the nation’s leading cities, including its two largest, New York and Los Angeles, are governed by progressive coalitions in which immigrant and minority groups play a major role. And cities—not states, not the federal government—set the rules for their police departments.     

In some instances—when, for instance, local police departments routinely abuse minorities—the federal government intervenes (depends on who’s president). But even departments as historically abusive as Chicago’s have largely complied with city policies that forbid cops from arresting people if they can’t produce legal identification, and that forbid jailers from handing over any but violent criminals to immigration authorities if those criminals are undocumented immigrants.

Such sanctuary cities are legion, and there are sanctuary counties, too, for a very good reason that goes beyond simple human decency: Refusing to regard undocumented immigration as a crime is actually indispensable to law and order in any city with a sizable immigrant population.

Consider Los Angeles, which, back in 1979, may have been the first U.S. city to order its cops not to take people in if they lacked documentation. Of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the nation, nearly 900,000 live in L.A. County, and more than half of those in the city of Los Angeles. If anywhere near that number of residents refused to talk to the police when crimes were committed, or shunned the police altogether for fear of being picked up and deported, crime would skyrocket. Nativist demagogues such as Trump and Bill O’Reilly insist that crime would fall if the undocumented were apprehended and sped to their countries of origin, but in fact, the surest way to start a crime wave would be to do just that. Immigrants (and minorities who look like immigrants) would fear all contact with the cops, which in turn would mean that in vast swaths of cities, crime would go unreported. That’s why L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and a host of local and state officials have pledged to maintain their sanctuary-city policies, but why LAPD Chief Charlie Beck was one of the first to affirm it. The one sure way law and order would crumble on his watch would be if the cops made all immigrants run from them.

No other major U.S. city has as many undocumented immigrants as L.A., but every other major U.S. city has enough so that Beck’s commitment is not anomalous. The reason is not just city leaders’ fear that mass detentions would trigger violence and civic disruption. The toll that detentions would take on their cities’ economies would be ruinous. The political toll that a sweep of the undocumented would take on cities’ governing coalitions, in which naturalized immigrants are now commonly a significant bloc, would prove disastrous as well. There is no significant constituency in urban America that would support Trump’s threatened deportations.

Trump can’t federalize local police departments, and it’s a stretch to imagine he would send in the national guard or the army to lock up whole communities and then sift through them to identify those without papers. What he can do is diminish or cut off federal funding to cities that retain their sanctuary status. Indeed, he pledged to do just that in his August immigration speech in Arizona. Financial resources for police, community development grants, funding for transportation and other infrastructure projects could all be reduced.

So one of the first battles America is likely to undergo under Trump will pit cities against the feds on the question of immigration deportation. From L.A.’s Garcetti to New York’s Bill De Blasio to Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel, mayors have pledged to keep their cops from cooperating with federal agents charged with deporting the undocumented, even if that means a loss of some federal funds. That said, cities have come to rely on federal dollars to help meet some of their pressing needs, particularly in matters of transportation and infrastructure. Mayoral resolve is all well and good, but it will also likely require ongoing pressure from minority and progressive communities—in the halls of government and on the streets—to keep cities from buckling.

Some fiscal ingenuity that enables cities to fund more of such projects themselves would also help. This November, Los Angeles County voters elected to impose a sales tax extension on themselves that will provide most of the funding for an ambitious rail system that will span the county. That kind of increased self-sufficiency will make it easier for cities to stand up to the xenophobes. Victories over a Trumpified federal government won’t come cheap and won’t come easy. But urban America—and urban Americans—can put up a hell of a fight. 

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