by Jim Stempel
The American satirist, Ambrose Bierce once defined politics as “A Strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles,” and there is little question that historically virtually every American political party has at one time or another wrapped itself in the rhetoric of high principle while ruthlessly gaming for little more than electoral supremacy. Indeed, so common has this strategy become that today it is almost an American tradition, like tinsel on Christmas trees; simple, cheap, and easily forgotten. But recently, a group of mayors appear prepared to take this exercise to an entirely new level, announcing both publicly and stridently their intention to shield from Federal immigration authorities, not only the many undocumented individuals who live within their boundaries, but as well the felons and violent criminals who harbor among them.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was the first to mount the bully pulpit in this regard, declaring that his city would not cooperate with Federal authorities, and further that Chicago would remain a “safe” city for all those undocumented individuals affected, including the violent felons among them. Emanuel’s feisty declaration was then passionately seconded by a number of mayors, as though shielding violent criminals from the legal process was an act of civic virtue, per se. That Mr. Emanuel should declare his city “safe” for anyone at all (Chicago is now undergoing a catastrophic epidemic of assaults, shootings, and murders) struck some observers as curious if not downright laughable, and an almost incomprehensible stance for a mayor with approval ratings in African American and Latino neighborhoods (who are most affected by the violence) that remain substantially underwater.
By and large, the American public remains a fair, compassionate, and forgiving group. Surveys and polls, for instance, demonstrate that today some 70% of Americans do not want to see undocumented individuals or families harassed and deported, but prefer a more equitable solution to an immigration problem that has been decades in the making, enabled by Democratic and Republican administrations alike. Unfortunately, this compassion seems to have been conflated by these mayors into the odd conviction that Americans are just as willing to shield violent criminals as they are the greater population of undocumented immigrants, something that is manifestly untrue. And it is precisely here where the “sanctuary rhetoric” offered by these public servants departs from common law, the common good, not to mention common sense. Indeed, these defiant proclamations, if enforced, would abrogate the most essential bond long established between citizens and their governments.
The most basic relationship between any government and its people is one of mutual protection and preservation. In short, the people provide support for government in return for protection from internal and external threats. Political theorists have long agreed on this central tenet, and even Jean-Jacques Rousseau – the archetypical revolutionary and icon of Romantic philosophy – agreed that legitimate political authority could of course exist, and included it as a fundamental aspect of his Social Contract. The mayors of these sanctuary cities, however, are in the process of turning this critical bond on its head – internal threats (the violent criminals and felons) are now to be provided a sort of open space and free reign over the law-abiding populace, a step that defies the most basic of civilized norms. Law-abiding residents of any description do not care to be accosted on the street or in their homes by a criminal element sheltered by civil authority, and the notion that urban populations across the United States (documented or undocumented) will happily submit to a breakdown of civil order in the service of political expediency defies imagination.
The issue of local verses Federal authority is not new, of course, and goes back to the earliest days of the republic. Perhaps the most heated of these debates was the “nullification issue” of 1832-33 when South Carolina resolved that it had the right to invalidate federal law, and then attempted to do so by nullifying the unpopular Tariff of 1832. While the tariff was widely unpopular in the South, this act was really a test case for the principle of nullification itself, for the true fear in South Carolina at the time was that the Federal Government might one day attempt to disrupt through legislation the institution of slavery.
Then president, Andrew Jackson responded with unwavering support for the supremacy of Federal Law. He threatened to intervene with force, and South Carolina actually began arming for conflict. So heated did the rhetoric become that many at the time feared civil war. Indeed, Henry Clay, afraid of just such a disastrous confrontation, wrote “If there be any who want civil war, who want to see the blood of any portion of our countrymen spilt, I am not one of them. I wish to see war of no kind; but, above all, I do not desire to see civil war.” Threats and posturing continued for months before the issue was finally resolved with the Compromise of 1833, but the issue would flare again some thirty years later when South Carolina led the South out of the Union and head-first into the nation’s greatest catastrophe – the American Civil War.
In 1833 the politicians of South Carolina feigned political and moral outrage to cloak their support for the immoral institution of slavery. Today we find ourselves lectured by a group of mayors attempting to affirm an abstruse civic standard that runs counter to civilized norms, violates public safety, and is morally indefensible. Jessica Vaughn, writing for the Center For Immigration Studies, for instance, wrote that during one nine month period in 2014 sanctuary cities shielded 9265 illegals from deportation, 62% of whom “had significant prior criminal histories.” Of these, 2320 were later rearrested for additional violations, and the situation is only getting worse. Is it reasonable to believe that any society that protects its criminals in favor of its law-abiding residents can long endure? I think not. This may all play-out, of course, as little more than a frivolous political stunt designed simply to rankle the new Trump administration, but I fear Mr. Emanuel and his colleagues may wake up one morning only to discover that they have painted themselves into the wrong corner. What then?
Emerging from a raucous and at times toxic presidential election, it would appear that today many questions remain unanswered as to the direction toward which the American ship of state is to be guided, yet this, I would suggest, is typical of the turbulent nature of democracy itself. In the early years of the 19th Century, for instance, the young Frenchmen, Alexis De Tocqueville traveled the United States and recorded his observations regarding the status of our emerging democracy in a volume titled Democracy In America, surely one of the most thoughtful and prescient works ever produced on the topic. “The nations of our time” he concluded, “cannot prevent the conditions of men from becoming equal; but it depends upon themselves whether the principle of equality is to lead them to servitude or freedom, to knowledge or barbarism, to prosperity or wretchedness.” Judging from recent events, I would suggest that today those questions remain far from answered. Prosperity or wretchedness? We shall see.
"Sanctuary Cities: Proseperity of Wretchedness," © 2017. This article may not be reproduced without the express and written permission of the author