The Fight Over Sanctuary

As of press time, “resistance” is a hot topic. It seems like the word is on the tongues of everyone, from revolutionary leftists to the most mediocre of liberals. This, for the record, is good: more people being more engaged, and feeling pushed more to the left, is good and necessary. The real question is, what does that resistance look like?

The first flashpoint in the crisis of urban governance was this week’s confrontation at major international airports. However, another upcoming flashpoint that is interesting to us here at Sewer Socialists is the fight over “sanctuary cities.” One of us hopes to soon be an immigration lawyer. But more broadly, the fight over sanctuary cities is exactly the kind of flashpoint between cities and the federal government that we’ve recently written about.

What Are Sanctuary Cities?

A “sanctuary city” is a city that does not cooperate with immigration officials, or turn over immigrants for deportation. It is not an official designation, and different places may provide sanctuary in different ways. The Washington Post has a decent summary.

Many cities and counties provide sanctuary by refusing to hold people in jail because of their immigration status. One of the most common ways immigrants wind up in deportation proceedings is after getting arrested, often for drug possession or DUI. Many convictions make non-citizens deportable, and undocumented immigrants can be removed simply for being present without documents. For these reasons, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) asks state and local governments to keep immigrants in jail after their arrest or conviction, so ICE can more easily pick them up and put them in deportation proceedings. But thanks to federalism, state and local governments do not HAVE to comply with these requests, and many cities and counties refuse compliance in some way or another. This does not mean that ICE cannot deport these people—an immigrant with certain convictions is deportable no matter what—but it is much harder for them to actually do so.

This means that local noncompliance is a critical part of protecting immigrant workers and families. If more cities turn immigrants and immigrants’ information over to ICE, more people will be deported, and more families will be broken up. If fewer cities snitch on immigrants, fewer people will be deported, and fewer families will be broken up.

What’s The Deal?

Because mass deportation relies so heavily on the compliance of local governments, the federal government is coercing cities to bring them in line. The White House, through executive order, is trying to cut off all federal funds from any city or county that does not comply with immigration enforcement requests. This is probably illegal for a host of reasons. In fact, part of what’s so concerning about this is that the executive branch has said that it will ignore court orders and do whatever it wants. But at the end of the day, politics is about power, and we need to focus on how to fight these orders with power.

This is where the crisis of urban governance comes in. Cities and urban areas have immense political and economic power at their fingertips. Politically, they have the power to make mass deportation unsustainable, by providing sanctuary and refusing to cooperate. Economically, they have the power to shut down the economy. . The capitalist class that currently runs the government relies on cities. Without the ports of Long Beach, New Orleans, or Newark, the trade that makes big business rich grinds to a halt. Without railroad hubs in Chicago, distribution centers in Memphis and Seattle, or a thousand other factors all based in major cities, big business has nothing.

Cities will be pressured to comply with the federal government, especially on mass deportation. Washington has already threatened to cut funds from cities that do not cooperate. But cities can pressure Washington, too. That pressure will have to come straight from the people, demanding that their city governments act, but it will be effective. The American deportation machine, like the American economy, relies on American cities. That gives cities power. We should use it.


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