Opinion | White House

What's behind Trump's project to defund 'anarchist jurisdictions?'

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

On Sept. 2 President Donald Trump issued an executive order that called for the Department of Justice (DOJ) to withhold federal funds from what the president called "anarchist jurisdictions." 

Later the same month, the DOJ identified New York City, Portland, Ore. and Seattle as "anarchist jurisdictions," and began moving to withhold funding from these cities. New York may lose $7 billion in federal funding, including $1 billion in police funding. Meanwhile, nearly $2 million in funding to the Portland area and $4.6 million to Washington, D.C., is under review. If withheld, it will reportedly impact important health and safety programs, such as infant hearing screenings in Washington, D.C., and COVID-19 safety measures.

The president's most recent attempts to politicize federal funding through the notion of "anarchist jurisdictions" is only the latest in a long line of strategies by political leaders to justify draconian policies by using imaginary legal geographies of disorder and chaos.

The intended and un-ironic outcome is that labelling cities as "anarchist jurisdictions" and then withholding funding based on that label, is all the more likely to stimulate inequality, disorder and social unrest - which then feeds back into the justification of the policy in the first place. 

If he gets his way, Trump will turn his fictional world of "anarchist jurisdictions" into reality, harming many people in the process.

And because these cities are home to Democratic majority voters, the "anarchist jurisdictions" label also feeds into Trump's reelection campaign message of dividing the country geographically into red and blue states.

This is not the first or only context in which this strategy has been used. For example, as researchers at Princeton University have shown, the expansion of U.S.-Mexico border policing in the past quarter-century has relied on a similar strategy of claiming the border is out of control, justifying increased budgets and a border wall, which then led to unprecedented migrant death and contributed to the rise of violence and disorder along the border. 

Most recently, this logic has been used to justify the action titled Migration Protection Protocols (MPP), which, according to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University has required nearly 70,000 asylum-seekers to stay in Mexico during their asylum hearings under risky conditions and without access to an attorney. As a result, many asylum-seekers have faced homelessness and violence while waiting in Mexico, and many have even abandoned their claims for asylum, choosing instead to take life-and-death chances back in their home country or try to enter the country unlawfully. These outcomes feed into the misperception that asylum-seekers don't show up for their hearings, which then could be interpreted to justify MPP in the first place.

As recently as the third and final presidential debate, Trump claimed that except for immigrants with "low IQ," immigrants don't show up for court. This claim contradicts a study from TRAC, which shows that out of 47,000 immigrant families seeking asylum, 85 percent show up for their first immigration court hearing. The number is even higher, 99.9 percent, for those who have an attorney. Regardless of the facts, Trump's claim that immigrants don't attend hearings - like the claim that some jurisdictions are out of control - feeds into an imaginary geography of widespread disorder that can be used to justify more illiberal and possibly illegal policies.

The president's attempt to invent imaginary spaces of widespread chaos and disorder continues to raise serious legal questions. Just this week, the Supreme Court decided to hear arguments about whether MPP is legal. Likewise, the Trump administration's  attempt to withhold funding from "anarchist jurisdictions" has also been challenged in court just this week.

It is important for the public to understand the political maneuver behind Trump's rhetoric about "anarchist jurisdictions" in order to guard against the damaging policies that this rhetoric seeks to justify. 

Dr. Austin Kocher is a faculty fellow with the Transactional Research Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), at Syracuse University.

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