The elected officials of many cities and municipalities around the United States—including major population centers such as New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco—have declared that they are “sanctuaries” that refuse to cooperate with federal efforts to deport illegal immigrants residing within their borders. (Note: This modern civil sanctuary movement is distinct from sanctuary historically associated with houses of worship; I do not wish to conflate the two.) In addition, many public school districts and colleges have likewise vowed to refuse to identify students who are not citizens or otherwise lack legal residency status. Today’s sanctuary movement has recently picked up tremendous momentum with the election of Donald Trump as our next President because he has explicitly—and repeatedly—promised to deport those who are in violation of immigration laws.
The question here is basic: Do we insist immigration statutes be obeyed or support those who are disobeying the law in the service of what they believe to be a higher moral purpose?
Back in 2015 I wrote of a similar conflict between what a government official believed to be moral and what the law demanded, in that case regarding the refusal of a County Clerk in Kentucky named Kim Davis to sign same-sex marriage licenses in the wake of the Supreme Court decision legalizing such unions nationwide. Ms. Davis’ stand was highly unpopular with many, but I supported her decision, writing in part the following:
We cannot, of course, allow everyone to disregard those laws they find inconvenient; we surrender some measure of our individual freedom in order to create a smoothly functioning society. However, there does need to be some recognition that civil and moral laws are not always congruent, and those who choose to deliberately and openly break laws they deem unjust are providing an essential check on the unrestrained power of the state. Those who believe that the “law is the law” should read “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and consider that Reverend King was willing to be a “criminal” precisely because he believed that his disobedience of unjust laws was in service to higher principles that secular laws had failed to recognize.
A year later, we are again witnessing a battle between elected officials and the law of the land. Given that I supported a stand that infuriated liberals, I believe it would be intellectually inconsistent to not now back one that infuriates conservatives.
Moreover, to demand that government officials act as automatons—blindly enforcing rules and laws without regard to those affected—is to forego whatever measure of common sense and humanity still remains in our bureaucratized world. I do not want to be ruled by robots, and active resistance to government policies that some find unjust is an essential mechanism for improvement of our country. The United States was, after all, founded by rebels, and it is this underlying spirit that has animated and improved our nation throughout its history.
There is, however, one facet of all civil disobedience that must be remembered: There may be severe punishment for any who refuse to yield.
Obviously federal deportations and detentions of illegal immigrants have happened—and will continue to happen—prior to the start of the Trump Presidency. However, during the Obama administration there was no real price to be paid by cities and municipalities that thumbed their noses at federal immigration law or the Department of Justice; President Obama was, in fact, exceedingly anxious to use his Executive powers to push those here illegally into a protected category as an apparent prelude to fast-track citizenship. This will no longer be the case. President-Elect Trump and his nominee for Attorney General are certainly going to deal much more harshly and quickly with city and state governments or private institutions that throw up roadblocks to prompt enforcement of the laws already on the books, and this change will be startling for those who never imagined there might be a consequence for providing protection to those who are here illegally.
It will, therefore, be interesting to see just how big of a hammer the Trump administration will employ to enforce the law—and just how long those who have vowed to disobey will prevail. If, for example, the new administration moves to impose criminal or regulatory penalties upon local governments—or even individual government officials—we can expect the liberal mayors of many major cities to take up the classic conservative call for a respect of state’s right. Moreover, if government officials find themselves hauled into court by angry labor unions and citizens because expected federal public education, health, safety, and infrastructure funding has been embargoed to compel compliance, which will certainly result in a great many layoffs and service reductions, we are going to find out just how deeply the beliefs of many local school boards and mayors really run.
Given that I teach at my local community college, I particularly worry about just how much muscle the Trump administration will bring to bear to identify college students who are in the country illegally. The solution could simply be one of certifying the citizenships of those enrolled, which would be paperwork headache but a manageable mandate if our nation’s colleges and universities are willing.
However, many colleges and universities are certain to refuse to comply with a requirement to identify illegal immigrants among their students. Possible threats to revoke the tax-exempt status of schools that refuse to cooperate—or perhaps even ban those schools from participation in the federal student loan program, which would immediately close most colleges and universities where such a penalty were enacted—are the nuclear bombs that I hope need never be dropped. I cannot imagine such extraordinary penalties would ever be enacted by the Obama administration, but I doubt the Trump administration would have the least compunction about harshly punishing any post-secondary institution that tried to circumvent immigration laws. Trump ran on this issue, won on it, and is sure to enforce the law—and his appointees probably will not be very gentle about doing so.
I support the rights of government officials and school administrators to peacefully refuse to comply with immigration laws that they consider unjust if they are willing to accept the legal consequences for their actions, but the question of just how far they are willing to go to shelter those who are in our country illegally is still very much an open question—because they have never had to reckon with the possibility of actual punishment before. Therefore, the success of cities and schools at providing “sanctuary” will likely boil down to just how much pain they can endure in order to continue to do so. I suppose we will soon know just how much steel is in the spines of the many who have vowed to protect those who are living here illegally.
Whatever we may feel about the morality, common sense, or decency of the current sanctuary movement, we should respect the rights of those government officials who are protesting; it is perhaps a requirement baked into our national DNA. We are a country that always seems to believe that we can be better than we are—and we are not shy about making our views on any subject pertaining to this known to all. We may sometimes zig, zag, or head in entirely the wrong direction in the course of our neverending self-examination, but this process has been of great benefit in creating the nation we have today.
We protest, we argue, we debate—and this is the very essence of what makes us Americans, whether our families have been here since the Mayflower landed or we are only recently naturalized. As maddening as this might be at times for some, we need to continue to celebrate our national heritage of believing America can always be improved through peaceful and open protest.