Let D.C. set its immigration enforcement policy

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“Nearly all Americans have ancestors who braved the oceans – liberty-loving risk takers in search of an ideal – the largest voluntary migrations in recorded history… Immigration is not just a link to America’s past; it’s also a bridge to America’s future.” — President George H.W. Bush, Nov. 29, 1990, Remarks on Signing the Immigration Act of 1990.

Even though a majority of voters from all political stripes support comprehensive immigration reform with a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants, President Trump has placed a high priority on increasing the detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants and threatens to withhold Federal funding for the approximately 350 local governments, better known as sanctuary cities, that refuse to require their local police to enforce immigration law. 

{mosads}For District residents, the president’s threat to withdraw funds not only implicates fiscal and public safety issues, but again calls into question the ability of the mayor and city council to set local law enforcement priorities. 

Contrary to the Trump administration’s assertion that sanctuary cities shield criminals, the overwhelming evidence shows that sanctuary policies foster safer communities, promote inclusivity, build cooperation and trust with local law enforcement, and increase the reporting of criminal activity among documented and undocumented residents.   

In a joint statement earlier this year, the Major Cities Chiefs Association, a coalition of top police officials representing the largest agencies in the country, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors reinforced this message declaring that, “Immigrants residing in our cities must be able to trust the police and all of our city governments.”

While the federal government exercises exclusive jurisdiction over immigration enforcement, state and local governments should assert their sovereign authority to assess local needs and priorities as part of their “police powers,” in order to provide for the health, safety, education and welfare of their communities.  To ensure that already-limited local law enforcement resources are directed towards local crime prevention priorities, jurisdictions like the District of Columbia should consider measures that prioritize community safety over immigration policies that unnecessarily burden our already over-stretched police force and tear at the fabric of our community. 

Our police officers should be focused on reducing crime, not checking the immigration status or lack thereof of witnesses and victims to see whether they are lawfully in the country.  Aside from threatening public safety and confidence in government, federal demands for local police to implement immigration law also have the potential to cause D.C. residents to flee or curtail their regular activities, taking a financial toll on the vibrant economies in sanctuary cities. According to the American Immigration Council, if all undocumented immigrants were removed from Washington, D.C., the District would lose $1.1 billion in economic activity; $490.5 million in gross product; approximately 5,400 jobs; and $28.9 million in “state” and local taxes, including $17.7 million in sales taxes, $5.6 million in personal income taxes, and $5.6 million in property taxes.

Following the release of the executive order focused on “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser issued a strong statement, reiterating, “[W]e celebrate our diversity and respect all DC residents no matter their immigration status.” The City Council unanimously passed a resolution vowing to maintain sanctuary city status. The elected officials in Washington, D.C., understand that the District is home to approximately 90,000 immigrants, roughly 25,000 of whom are undocumented, from countries across the globe including China, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Vietnam, and others. DC’s top law enforcement officer, Attorney General Karl Racine, an immigrant himself who fled Haiti due to political oppression, stated that his office “will do everything it can do to protect the rights of all District residents, including undocumented immigrants.”

Washington, D.C. is particularly vulnerable among its sister sanctuary cities because, despite the not-so-aptly named law that gives the District some power to govern itself, it lacks home rule. As a result, Congress can overrule the will of the District’s residents and their budget priorities through the power of the purse.  In the past, Congress has banned D.C. from spending its own tax dollars on a needle-exchange program; forced D.C. to invest public school funds on private school vouchers; and attempted to block D.C. from subsidizing abortions for low-income women.  The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has signaled that DC’s sanctuary city policy is likely their next target. On top of these locally-focused efforts, Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.) already introduced a bill that would “stop all Federal funds from flowing to states or localities which resist or ban enforcement of federal immigration laws, or flatly refuse to cooperate with immigration officials.”  The financial impact of such a law could be disastrous for the District, which relies on Federal funding for almost 30 percent of its overall budget. This could deprive D.C. of up to a billion dollars in funding, including money for public schools, museums, homeless services, healthcare, and disaster services.  

Our profile as a diverse nation of immigrants continues to be a source of national pride and one of the fundamental reasons why the U.S. is a global superpower.  It has become almost trite to say that we are a nation of immigrants.  Yet, this is a tepid understatement of the ways in which America has socially, economically, and culturally benefitted from attracting peoples of all nations to its —once— welcoming shores.  We are a nation because of immigrants.  For that reason, it is important to defend sanctuary policies across the country, starting with the District of Columbia. 

Mayor Bowser and the city council are on the right track.  As Mayor Bowser explained, D.C.’s status as a sanctuary city “means that our police can focus on serving D.C. residents — protecting and serving them — no matter their immigration status.”  It bears repeating that DC’s sanctuary city policy does not prevent the Metropolitan Police Department from pursuing or arresting an undocumented immigrant who commits a crime.  As taxpayers of the District of Columbia who already lack Congressional representation (or representation in Congress), we demand that the District’s efforts to uphold the rule of law be its own decision and that our local elected-leadership be able to set the District’s own law enforcement policy.  The District leadership has made that decision.  Let it stand.

Richard V. Rodriguez is President-elect of the Hispanic Bar Association of the District of Columbia. Melissa Turcios is a Legislative and Policy Affairs Committee member of the Hispanic Bar Association of the District of Columbia.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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