This month, North Carolina state lawmakers voted to prohibit so-called sanctuary ordinances in cities and counties throughout the state. While a sanctuary ordinance may sound esoteric enough, the reality is much more harsh. Among the myriad consequences, under the new law many immigrants will be stripped of their identification– county, consulate or other – and left with no officially accepted documentation whatsoever. Worse, the new law may increase the wave of deportations (even for minor crimes) and prevent immigrant communities from being able to safely interact with local police.
The state’s message is clear: immigrants are not welcome here. But North Carolina isn’t the only state that has taken a cue from the anti-immigrant movement. Michigan and Texas legislators proposed similar bills or renewed efforts to pass them.
Now, federal legislators have taken notice. The U.S. Senate is likely to bring to the floor, later this month, a bill introduced by Sens. Vitter (R-La.) and Flake (R-Ariz.) that would withhold federal funding from cities that protect their residents from deportation, limit police coordination with federal enforcement, and prioritize trust-building measures among immigrant communities.
While this legislation in Congress and North Carolina is a major setback for immigrant rights, it does not come out of the blue. It is the result of a long-standing strategy promoted by a powerful anti-immigrant lobby. Anti-immigrant leaders have learned how to take advantage of a tragic, local event and use it to shift the focus of the debate to national policies.
Take, for example, North Carolina State Senator Jerry Tillman’s argument in support of the state’s legislation: “32-year old, beautiful, talented Kate Steinle would probably be alive today if San Francisco had any guts about them whatsoever, which they don’t,” he said. Tillman was referring, of course, to the tragic shooting this summer in San Francisco. The man charged with killing Kathryn Steinle is an undocumented immigrant who had previous felony convictions and has been deported several times. Of course, rather than forcing cities to comply with federal detainer requests, which has been ruled unconstitutional, the federal government can simply obtain a warrant or court order to take into custody those who truly pose a danger to society.
Anti-immigrant activists have exploited Steinle’s tragic death to push anti-immigrant policies that do nothing to address public safety or prevent gun violence. Most concerning, their work threatens to undo years of immigrant rights work, trust built between local law enforcement and immigrant communities, and constitutional rights established in law enforcement practices.
But their presence is no surprise. The anti-immigrant movement in this country is both well funded and well organized. Shortly after Steinle’s death, for example, the “think tank” of the anti-immigrant movement, the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), ramped up their attacks on so-called sanctuary cities.
CIS released a map of more than 200 cities, counties, and states that are “sanctuaries” and that fail to adhere to CIS’s regressive, low-immigration objectives. The map was intended as a political target but fell flat. While many of these “sanctuary cities” are working to establish solid ties between immigrant communities and local officials, others are not and still quickly criticized the map. Local sheriffs from jurisdictions named on the map rejected the sanctuary label and asserted that their policies are simply intended to stay on the right side of the constitution.
The truth is that anti-immigrant groups like CIS are less concerned about public safety and more concerned with reducing overall levels of immigration, particularly people of color. (As their own words and actions have long indicated, the contemporary anti-immigrant movement has deep roots in racism and nativism.) Nor will CIS stop until they’ve increased the number of immigrants swept up in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deportation scheme -- irrespective of status. In reality, many immigrants are victims of crime, survivors of domestic violence, community members targeted by racial profiling or criminalized based on the color of their skin, kids getting into mischief, and people genuinely making mistakes but ultimately not deserving of family separation.
Allowing this anti-immigrant activism to override rational policymaking, however, comes with serious consequences – like racial profiling. North Carolina’s legislation HB 318, as well as the Congressional legislation under consideration, puts undocumented residents at risk for unreasonable detention and deportation, even in routine contact with local police. Undocumented residents, and those in mixed status families, may think twice before reporting a crime or calling the police if they are experiencing domestic violence, or they may be taken away from their families because of a minor offense.
None of this will lead to safer communities. It will only fracture families more, leading to less stability and less security.
Before North Carolina’s mistake is replicated at the state or federal level, we need our policymakers to stay above the noise created by extreme actors in our political system. Focusing on forging policy that is constitutional and fair, rather than reactionary and drawn from base prejudices, is the only way to build the kind of strong, welcoming nation in which we all want to live.
Schubiner is senior program manager at the Center for New Community. Shank, PhD, is adjunct faculty at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.