Letters from Boston: The Truth Behind “Sanctuary” Cities

Over a hundred years ago, the racist anti-immigrant cartoonist, Thomas Nast, did his best to whip up anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S. The time was the 1880’s. His cartoons portrayed the Irish as monkeys, Catholic Bishops as crocodiles climbing onto America’s shores to eat up white Anglo-Saxon Protestant families, and hordes of lawless immigrants swarming off of boats to take up degenerate lives of crime in America’s cities.

Fast forward to the present.

The Know-Nothing Party has finally taken the White House with Donald Trump’s presidency. What is his top target where cities are concerned? Not infrastructure, bridges, jobs, schools, or restoring dwindling numbers of sworn officers on the streets, rather bringing “sanctuary cities under control” by cutting off any and all federal funding possible.

If you are one of those Americans who works or lives in a metro area of the United States, you might scratch your head and ask: What exactly is a “sanctuary city?”

To listen to Donald Trump or his Press Secretary, you would think we have an epidemic of U.S. Mayors who are actively providing “sanctuary” to millions of illegal Mexican immigrants. People who Trump has repeatedly characterized as, “bad hombres” and “murderers and rapists.”

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Unassailable Truth # 1: Mayors get elected and re-elected to make their cities safer, not to turn them into “sanctuaries” for violent criminals.

Think about it.

The historic crime reductions in America over the last two decades — until the recent upticks — were produced by Mayors and their Police Departments doing what works, sharing information, and building up trust between police and the communities they serve. This was not accomplished by Congress. It was accomplished by Mayors.

Improving public safety — reducing crime if you prefer — is one of the top priorities of every Mayor in America. More than any other officeholder in our land, Mayors look at the challenges facing their cities — job creation, better schools, cleaner streets — through the lens of “what does this mean for public safety and what does public safety mean for achieving these goals.”

Unassailable Truth #2: Net immigration from Mexico last year was zero — which means more people left the United States for Mexico than left Mexico for the United States.

The Maginot Line had a better rationale than Trump’s wall. At least the French were facing a real threat.

Unassailable Truth #3: Not withstanding the now infamous examples of immigrant Irish or Italian gangsters in America’s past, immigrant people in the U.S. today are not the drivers of violent crime in cities, local native-born Americans are.

Mayors and their police chiefs know that public trust is essential to crime reduction. This is why — over the last several years — city after city opted out of the practice of blindly cooperating with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Bureau (ICE).
ICE was increasingly deporting thousands of people without any real public safety rationale, and they were increasingly using local law enforcement functions and jails to do it for them. Every traffic stop and call to 911 became an opportunity for ICE to check someone’s immigration status and deport that person.

This dragnet deportation policy breaks up families, erodes public trust, and harms local crime reduction efforts.

Mayors and their police chiefs rightly said, no more. If for public safety reasons ICE wants a person held and deported, it needs to present the legally required paperwork to local law enforcement in order to do so. This is not an unreasonable request. This also does not create criminal sanctuaries. In fact, in my own State, this sort of warrant based on due process is required by the State Constitution.

Mayors and their Police Chiefs are right to stand up to the immigrant bashing carnival barker, Donald Trump on this one.

It is the one of many important moral fights that will tell whether we have leaned anything from history. Stand up, Mayors. And hold strong.


Martin O’Malley is the Jerome Lyle Rappaport Visiting Professor at Boston College Law School for the spring 2017 semester. He is teaching a class on Leadership and Data Driven Government, while also participating in several panel discussions as part of the Rappaport Distinguished Public Policy Series. Every Monday he is publishing his thoughts in a series titled, “Letters from Boston.”