OPINION: Defend Sanctuary Cities

by R.D. Eno, Cabot

As many as 20,000 people joined the Montpelier Women’s March on Jan. 21 to affirm a shared system of values expressed succinctly in such familiar slogans as “A Woman’s Right to Choose,” “Equal Pay for Equal Work,” “Black Lives Matter,” “Health Care is a Right, Not a Privilege.” These and other catch phrases describe a continental constellation of blue communities whose values have come under challenge from the red Republican majority in Congress and the Big Bird in the White House. The GOP has drawn the battle lines starkly and dramatically in what amounts to a new civil war, and we have risen to march toward the barricades. That was the easy part. Now comes the fighting.

Nationally, blues outnumber the reds, and the Women’s March on Washington dwarfed Trump’s inaugural turnout. But we’ve seen, in the past, marches and demonstrations that have amounted to nothing. Whatever became of the Occupy Movement? We the (blue) People went out with impudent signs and joined in angry chants and then went back to our homes, our jobs, our lives fraught with uncertainty and, for the most part, refrained from roiling the seas that rock our little boats. As the plutocrats and oligarchs plot to enrich the rich at everyone else’s expense, we shake our heads, pray for world peace, complain about our property taxes and wonder what can be done. But hand-wringing in disbelief does not constitute political action.

Now Trump has laid down a challenge that we can’t ignore. He is threatening to withhold federal funds from Sanctuary Cities that have refused to co-operate, beyond their obligations under law, with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement authority in identifying, detaining and deporting those who may have jobs and families and pay taxes but live in the United States illegally. This gives a foretaste of the new administration’s strategy with respect to all of its policies: Comply or face sanctions. As Trump lets Putin and Assad off their respective hooks, he will hang Americans on them. This amounts to a declaration of war on blue communities.

Defense of Sanctuary Cities is not without its ethical ambiguities. Intractable southerners refused to submit to federal mandates on civil rights. “Segregation now, segregation forever,” declared Alabama governor George Wallace as he opened his campaign for the presidency. But Wallace and others stood in defiance of federal law; Sanctuary Cities comply with the law, but the law does not require local law enforcement to collaborate in the mission of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. For example, Sanctuary Cities will not facilitate investigations by detaining anyone longer than the law requires. If it is not necessary to their work, police in Sanctuary Cities will not seek information about people’s citizenship or immigration status. Sanctuary Cities are ethically consistent with the highest American ideals, signified by the Statue of Liberty lifting its lamp to guide the world’s dispossessed toward the Golden Door.

Trump attained his electoral victory through a substantial FU vote. Now he heads an FU administration. The appropriate response to Trump’s affronts to those American ideals will be a stiffly raised middle finger and a determination to stand by our blue values, even at the cost of federal cash. Vermont should declare itself a Sanctuary State, and Montpelier can lead the way by making clear that it will not retreat from its commitment to sanctuary. This could be costly in lost federal grants and litigation, but if money proves to be all that matters to us, then the plutocrats have won and the red tide will wash away all our values. If we can be threatened or bribed into betraying ourselves, we will have drained our community of its meaning, and every principle we stand for – choice, equality, diversity, sustainability — will dissolve into avarice and fear.

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