Anyone following politics in the United States knows that Donald Trump — and most Republicans — loathe “sanctuary cities,” places where local governments have directed law enforcement to limit their cooperation with federal agents enforcing immigration laws. When California passed a law making it a “sanctuary state” and barring state and local officials from cooperating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Trump called the law “dangerous” and “unconstitutional,” and most conservatives appear to agree with him.
But why? I know some liberals will simply dismiss Trump and his party as racists, and while racism may indeed have something to do with it, I think it more convincing to assume the most flattering portrait of American conservatism, or at least one that conservatives would recognize and approve of, and then ask whether that portrait is consistent with opposition to sanctuary cities. Viewed in the light most favorable to itself, we could say that American conservatism stands on three legs: respect for the rule of law, a preference for smaller, decentralized government, and devotion to Judeo-Christian values. All three of these considerations actually argue in favor of sanctuary cities.
Let’s take them in reverse order. First, it’s very easy to find Biblical support for the idea that we should welcome immigrants, whether in the Old Testament or the New. “When an alien resides with you in your land, do not molest him. You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you, have the same love for him as for yourself, for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt. I, the Lord, am your God.” Leviticus 19: 33–34. “‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’” Matthew 25: 35–40.
These and other verses are probably why prominent evangelicals like Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, and Leith Anderson of the National Association of Evangelicals, have argued against mass deportations and family separation, and in favor of earned citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has also written of the need for comprehensive immigration reform that recognizes the “right” of people to migrate in order to find work or escape oppression, and the duty of wealthy countries to accommodate the flow of migrants.
Second, a preference for smaller, decentralized government should make one sympathetic to the idea of sanctuary cities, since the alternative entails the right of the federal government to coerce and conscript local authorities to enforce federal laws. Indeed, the Supreme Court has previously struck down federal laws that would have forced state officials to become agents of the federal government. See Hodel v. Virginia Surface Mining & Reclamation Assn., Inc. 452 U.S. 264 (1981) (Congress may not “commandeer the legislative processes of the States by directly compelling them to enact and enforce a federal regulatory program.”) and New York v. United States, 505 U.S. 144 (1992) (“Where a federal interest is sufficiently strong to cause Congress to legislate, it must do so directly; it may not conscript state governments as its agents.”).
The case most directly on point is Printz v. United States, 521 U.S. 898 (1997), in which the Court held that a provision of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, requiring local law enforcement officers to conduct background checks on prospective gun buyers, and to perform other related tasks, violated the Constitution. Writing for the Court’s conservative wing, Justice Antonin Scalia held that “the Federal Government may neither issue directives requiring the States to address particular problems, nor command the State’s officers, or those of their political subdivisions, to administer or enforce a federal regulatory program.”
Third, respect for the rule of law means respecting Supreme Court precedent, and it also means deferring to the judgment of law enforcement officers. So what do local police and prosecutors say about their jurisdictions’ policies limiting cooperation with federal authorities?The Major Cities Chiefs Association, an organization representing police chiefs from the largest cities in the United States and Canada (cities that are home to nearly 80 million people) has unequivocally denounced federal attacks on sanctuary cities. In a statement, the MCCA says it opposes the conscription of local police to enforce federal immigration law for five reasons:
“ 1. It undermines the trust and cooperation with immigrant communities which are essential elements of community oriented policing.
2. Local agencies do not possess adequate resources to enforce these laws in addition to the added responsibility of homeland security.
3. Immigration laws are very complex and the training required to understand them significantly detracts from the core mission of local police to create safe communities.
4. Local police do not possess clear authority to enforce the civil aspects of these laws. If given the authority, the federal government does not have the capacity to handle the volume of immigration violations that currently exist.
5. The lack of clear authority increases the risk of civil liability for local police and government.”
When the city of Los Angeles sued the federal government over Trump’s crackdown on sanctuary cities, twenty-two elected prosecutors representing large and diverse cities such as San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Baltimore, Orlando, Philadelphia, Corpus Christi, Tucson, Denver, New York, and many more, all signed on to a friend of the court brief arguing that Trump’s policy “threatens community trust and endangers public safety.”
These prosecutors have the facts on their side. Contrary to Trump’s claim that sanctuary cities “breed crime,” UC San Diego political science professor Tom Wong has found that “crime is lower and economies are stronger in sanctuary counties compared to comparable non-sanctuary counties,” and that “entanglement with immigration enforcement makes it harder for local police to do their jobs.”
So there you have it. If you value the rule of law, small government, and Judeo-Christian values, where to come down on the question of sanctuary cities is easy. And if you continue to oppose sanctuary cities, you should not begrudge your critics for wondering whether your devotion to those values is genuine, or whether it masks other concerns less acceptable in polite society. Instead of accusing liberals of playing identity politics or exploiting racial divisions, you should answer why your position on sanctuary cities — and immigration in general — does not match your stated values. If your argument is reasonable and backed up by evidence, you will find most liberals perfectly willing to listen. But anger and defensiveness, without rational justification, will only make them assume the worst.