July 02, 2008

Whether due to the dramatic failure of last year’s attempt at comprehensive reform or to the essential similarity of the two candidates’ positions, the issue of illegal immigration has so far kept a fairly low profile in the presidential campaign.  Given McCain’s heterodoxy, this may be a blessing.  In the absence of a federal solution, state and local governments have begun to take matters into their own hands.  This may be a blessing, too.

A new ruling of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission has given the city of New Haven further leeway to continue the policies that have made it a flagship “sanctuary city.”  The government of New Haven, in an effort to make the city more hospitable to illegal immigrants, began issuing municipal ID cards that allow residents to open bank accounts and interact with local law enforcement without presenting federal identification.  (There was, among others, a concern that forcing illegal immigrants to deal exclusively in cash made them targets for robbery.)  Anti-immigration groups sued for the names of residents who applied for ID cards, but the state FOIC has issued a preliminary ruling denying their request.  While New Haven is rolling out a carpet, towns in Rhode Island and New Jersey are slamming their doors, cracking down on illegal immigrants and businesses that employ them, and police officers in Prince William Country, VA, are now required to check the immigration status of everyone they arrest.

Hard-liners on both sides have reason to hope that drastic local action may pressure the federal government to respond. Illegal immigration is a matter of national citizenship, and so its ultimate solution will necessarily be federal. Until such a solution materializes, however, local solutions have their own advantages.

Certain parts of the country view the influx of illegal immigrants into their communities as a threat. These fears may be primarily economic, cultural, or simply reactionary, but it remains that, so long as these immigrants lack the privileges of citizenship, communities are within their rights to expel them.  The state of Arizona has had success in doing so through the adjustment of incentives (eliminating job opportunities through the prosecution of firms that employ illegal immigrants, etc.), and the replacement of illegal labor with legal.  If Congress remains at an impasse on the issue of illegal immigration and McCain’s leadership remains ambiguous, those who oppose the eventual extension of citizenship to illegal aliens would do well to begin with their cities and states.

If cities wishing to drive illegal immigrants from their communities have the freedom to do so, then it follows that those cities wishing to draw illegal immigrants into theirs must have that freedom, too, within the bounds of the law.  This may not be such a bitter pill for immigration opponents to swallow.  Advocates for illegal immigrants have had to answer the charge that the current wave of immigration is different from others insofar as it is illegal.  Some have answered with the slogan “No human being is illegal”—an obvious falsehood, and especially irritating when it is draped in Christian rhetoric.  There are others who accept the argument that residency should not be divorced from citizenship, and who for this reason want citizenship granted to the illegal aliens who clearly desire permanent residence in the United States.  It is unclear whether any kind of “path to citizenship” plan will succeed on the national level, and I will leave aside the question of whether or not such a plan to be advisable.  However, insofar as programs like the New Haven ID card are meant to reinforce the idea that participation in a community must mean participation in its politics, they are a first step towards breeding the respect for law and government that illegal immigration undermines.

A permanent solution must either grant national citizenship to illegal immigrants or decisively refuse to grant it, but, given that some cities have decided to welcome illegal immigrants into their communities, better that they should do so in a way that doesn’t erode the importance of citizenship.  “Sanctuary cities” isolate the cultural impact (and the government services drain Richard cites) of immigration to those areas that have decided to welcome it, while places like Arizona and Prince William County have the consolation of knowing that they are writing the book from which the federal government may soon be taking a page.

If a national solution is not in the offing, these local policies may be the next best thing, both as stop-gap solutions and as data points for the national discussion.  After all, both sides can agree that nothing succeeds like success.


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