Sanctuary Cities and the Partisan Boomerang

Update 3/14/18: The battle rages on

Even proponents of the Sanctuary City movement will admit that the real effect of so-called “sanctuary” policies is minimal at best. Policy experts agree that the term is largely a misnomer, a symbolic gesture. That statement might come as a surprise to some, but it’s true. Despite the pitched reactions of many of the movement’s strongest supporters and opponents, the actual policies are highly variable with an impact that is murky and difficult to even measure. It typically entails a difference in the number of hours that people will be detained by local law enforcement. Not much more:

Contrary to what many believe, so-called “sanctuary” policies do not conceal or shelter unauthorized immigrants from detection. Nor do they shield immigrants from deportation or prosecution for criminal activities. The police can enforce all criminal laws against immigrants who commit crimes.

Nonetheless, the movement has consistently faced vigorous partisan attack, culminating with an executive order and then an ultimatum from the attorney general to cut off billions in federal funding unless the mayors of these cities relent.

There is reasonable debate about whether or not the the Department of Justice would have the authority to carry out such an action. Sure enough, several court challenges have sprung up and are well underway. If the current game of chicken continues, it’s likely that both sides will be locked in legal battles for months or years to come.

Time, effort, resources, and political capital — all spent to both target and defend a policy that even supporters ackowledge is more about posture than effect.

But therein lies the problem: posture. In general, taking a partisan stance tends to incur a backlash, a boomerang effect where the harder you throw the hook, the more aggressively it returns to smack you in the face.

For this reason, I sympathize with leaders in places like Lansing, Michigan, where the city council has to decided to avoid the label altogether:

“The term ‘sanctuary’ in the resolution has become very problematic and distracting — so distracting in my opinion that’s it’s taken away from the intent of our resolution, which is to protect individuals,” said Councilwoman Judi Brown Clarke.

“I think ultimately what we learned is … we thought we could define what ‘sanctuary city’ meant, and in actuality it has its own negative connotation,” she said. “The only way to take that away is to take that word away,” she added.

That strikes me as the pragmatist’s path forward: sidestep the unneeded attention and get back to quietly doing the job, the actual work.

Michigan Chamber President and CEO Richard Studley said the city council should “stop wasting time on costly political statements and focus on real economic issues.”

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