On Monday night in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, a resolution pronouncing my community a "welcoming city" was withdrawn from consideration by its author, Councilman Dan Besse. This document, which is a watered-down compromise of a previously proposed "sanctuary city" resolution promoted by a group of persistent activists, is for now the latest casualty of a far-right, all-out assault on immigrants led by the Trump administration and state legislatures across the country, including the gerrymandered state house in Raleigh.
Before drilling into the details of what happened on Main Street last night in a medium-sized city in the middle of North Carolina, let us take an overview of where immigrant rights stand now. We know that Trump has twice signed executive orders banning travelers from "certain" Muslim majority nations, countries chosen apparently for their ability to rouse fear in the hearts of heartland America than out of any sober analysis of actual threats to our security. On top of this, Trump and the wildly anti-immigrant Attorney General Jeff Sessions have unleashed ICE and Homeland Security agents to pursue roundups and deportations, creating a climate of abject fear--terror, really--in immigrant communities. Sessions has vowed to go after so-called sanctuary cities, typically large, liberal, urban locales like San Francisco, that refuse to strictly comply with the law. Some local leaders, most notably Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, have remained defiant, even threatening to take the government to court.
But what, exactly, does it mean to be a sanctuary city? Shouldn't laws be followed, rules enforced? If people are here illegally, why do cities protect them? To solve this puzzle, it might be useful to think about laws as separate from enforcement. Think about speeding or jaywalking, both of which are technically against the law, but convenience and convention dictate a de facto level of enforcement far different that the actual letter of the statutes. Does this mean that cities allow undocumented immigrants the full rights and privileges of citizens? The answer is a resounding no. Being undocumented in America comes with hosts of problems, primarily in employment, which is why so many work under the table.
Why, then, do cities look the other way in many situations involving the undocumented? The first reason involves safety. Zealously going after every person here without papers would drive those people into the shadows, creating enormous problems for law enforcement. Contrary to the Jeff Sessions/Donald Trump view of urban centers as "war zones" where armored police do daily battle with recalcitrant gang members, most police departments value engagement with community members who can report useful information and who are not scared to call in and report crimes. Since the latest crackdown, we have seen tragic examples like the woman who was reported to ICE by her abusive boyfriend and detained. The second reason our communities tolerate undocumented immigrants is economic: new arrivals to our country have, for better or worse, historically filled roles as workers few others are willing to take on. There are serious concerns that huge amounts of food will rot in the fields this season in California because workers are too scared to show up for fear of deportation.
Pragmatic considerations aside, the real reason to create sanctuary locales is out of human compassion. Donald Trump infamously launched his presidential campaign by claiming that Mexico doesn't send its "best people." Instead, he claimed, a steady stream of rapists, drug pushers, and murderers were part of an insidious invasion from the south. Facts do not bear this out. Immigrants are statistically less likely to commit violent crime than citizens. Period. Beyond that, why would a person leave everything behind to risk a dangerous border crossing into a new land, with a different predominant language? I would submit that in many ways, these are the most ambitious people we can imagine, people who just want to make an honest living, to work hard, raise families, live in peace. In war torn countries such as El Salvador and Honduras, violent gangs in effect run local communities, forcing young people into violence, drugs, and prostitution. For these children, fleeing is a matter of life and death. Many of them are sent by their families alone, with little more than the clothes on their back and a prayer. Imagine sending your ten-your old off to a foreign land in the care of unscrupulous smugglers. We should never lose sight of the fact that these countries are in terrible shape in no small part due to years of U.S. imperialist meddling, where we often supported brutal, right-wing military dictatorships that used torture and death squads to keep order. Yet, now we turn our backs? Consider that many recipients of services such as education and health care are children of immigrants, children born here with every right to those services. If their parents are driven into the shadows, these children cannot get even basic care.
North Carolina has a fast-growing population that includes many immigrant arrivals, both legal and otherwise. To understand why even a watered-down "welcoming city" resolution could cause so much controversy, we must look to a seemingly unrelated law, the recently repealed HB 2, the nationally infamous, so-called "bathroom bill." This law caused both scorn and boycotts to rain down upon our state because of its attack on LGBT rights, but less understood outside of North Carolina was that the law was a battle in an ongoing war between the GOP-controlled legislature and the state's liberal cities, much in the same way that Sessions is going to war with Los Angeles. The Charlotte City Council enacted a non-discrimination resolution that offended the far right, because it specifically included LGBT protections. HB 2 was rammed through the legislature in a single day, with no public comment, debate, or input from the minority party, and among other provisions, it forbade municipalities from passing any ordinance that superseded or contradicted state law. HB 2 has been repealed, but the major concession to the far right in the new law is a stipulation that no new anti-discrimination ordinances can be passed until 2020.
Even before the Trump victory, our gerrymandered state GOP supermajority seemed bent on vilifying and scapegoating immigrants. Bills like an "English-only" resolution were proposed, for example. But the latest session has seen our leaders, emboldened by the new era of bigotry and hate, piling on bills targeted directly at immigrants, and many of these seem likely to pass, from a statute that would withhold state funding to municipalities that engage in any sanctuary behavior, to measures aimed at ratcheting up procedures for handling minor offenses, to stricter procedural controls over how undocumented detainees are handled. Understandably, local leaders in Winston-Salem nervously confronted a sanctuary city resolution brought to them by a coalition of activists.
In an effort to affirm our basic decency as a community, without running afoul of state law, Dan Besse crafted his welcoming city resolution, which has no legal teeth, and is merely symbolic. In no way, shape, or form does it break state or federal law. Nonetheless, a group of state lawmakers from the Winston-Salem area met with Besse and other supporters of the bill. Without even hearing Besse's argument, they urged him to "bury" it, because the state legislature would absolutely retaliate. Besse, a competent, even-tempered attorney and long-time public servant accused the lawmakers of "intimidation." Subsequently, he withdrew his resolution from the Council because most of his colleagues had publicly pledged to not support it.
Supporters of the resolution remain undeterred. As the sun broke through a soft rain, they held a rally before the Council meeting on the stairs of City Hall. Besse and fellow Council member Derwin Montgomery spoke, as did various advocates and allies, including Wake Forest law professor Margaret Taylor. Besse said that he withdrew the resolution because he did not want our community to suffer a humiliating defeat. Fair enough, but goodness, kindness, common sense, and local autonomy have been utterly humiliated by our mean-spirited legislators, spurred on by our racist, xenophobic national demagogues. Notable at Monday's Council meeting was that supporters far outnumbered opponents both inside and outside the chamber.
The reasons to back away from this resolution make perfect sense. Do we really want to risk losing local funding just to push forward a piece of paper that does nothing legally? Why risk it? The gain is minimal, while the consequences could be dire. The reason has to do with dignity. If we can't even pass something as innocuous and universally appealing as a simple welcome, what can we do? What voice do the people of Winston-Salem have? The lawmakers who bullied our council should be ashamed of their hubris, and they should be advised that whatever punitive laws they pass will be subject to court challenges anyway. One thing is certain: the proponents of the Winston-Salem sanctuary city resolution are not going away. They will be out there on the front lines, protesting as well as protecting and advocating for immigrant communities. Another certainty: opposition is already coalescing to make sure those spiteful legislators are met with doors slamming their backsides as they are voted out of office in 2018.
Nationally, it was only a few short years ago that a bipartisan group of Senators, the so-called "Gang of Eight" seemed on the verge of passing at least some version of comprehensive immigration reform. Let's work to fix the system. We need to bring people out of the shadows, not drive them into darkness. What kind of a people are we? I, for one, would like to think that we can indeed be welcoming.
For more information, visit Winston-Salem Sanctuary City Coalition