Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

The Nihilism of Sanctuary Cities

There are an estimated 300 or so jurisdictions — entire states, counties, cities, and municipalities — that since the early 1980s have enacted “sanctuary city” laws, forbidding full enforcement of federal immigration law within their jurisdictions.

Most of these entities are controlled by Democrats in general and liberals in particular. Sanctuary officials feel that federal enforcement of the southern border is either unnecessary or immoral, and thus they have decided that there is no real crime in entering and residing in the United States unlawfully. While the majority of illegal aliens are no doubt law-abiding and have avoided public dependence, the pool of unlawful immigrants is so large at over 11 million that even small percentages of lawbreakers can translate into hundreds of thousands of criminal aliens.

The liberal Migration Policy Institute conceded that there are over 800,000 illegal aliens with criminal records, nearly 700,000 of them with felony arrest records.

Those numbers, of course, reflect only those who have been arrested and faced trial, not the unknown number who have committed crimes without being apprehended or charged. In some sanctuary cities, lawlessness among undocumented immigrants has reached epidemic proportions.

Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute found that two-thirds of all outstanding felony warrants in the city of Los Angeles involved illegal aliens — as well as 95% of outstanding murder warrants.

Sanctuary cities are on record as having released over 10,000 known criminal aliens into the general population whom Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were attempting to deport. In addition, hundreds of thousands of criminals are currently protected from deportation as they await trials and sentences. Among them, most infamously, is Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, a seven-time convicted felon and five-time deported illegal alien who was not turned over to ICE by the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department that held him in custody on a drug charge. He was instead released just weeks before he murdered Kate Steinle.

juan-francisco-lopez-sanchez-kate-steinle-7-19-15-1 In this July 7, 2015 AP file photo, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez is lead into a the courtroom for arraignment. More than 1,800 immigrants that the federal government wanted to deport were nevertheless released from local jails and later re-arrested for various crimes, according to a government report released last year. Lopez-Sanchez pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and other charges in the death of Kate Steinle, 32.

The apparent principle of sanctuary cities is akin to roulette. The odds suggest that most illegal aliens detained by officials are not career felons and thus supposedly need not be turned over to ICE for deportation. On the chance that some of their 10,000 released criminals will go on to commit further crimes in the manner of Juan Lopez-Sanchez, officials then shrug that the public outcry will be episodic and quickly die down, or will at least not pose political problems as great as would come from deporting aliens.

Yet the idea of a sanctuary city is Confederate to the core, reminiscent of antebellum Southern states picking and choosing which federal statutes they would abide by or reject. Even before the Civil War, the Nullification Crisis of 1832-33 pitted South Carolina against a fellow southerner, President Andrew Jackson, as the state declared that federal tariff laws were not applicable within its confines. Jackson understood the threat to the union, and promised to send in federal troops before South Carolina backed down.

The problem with legal nullification is always the enduring principle, never just the immediate landscape, of its implementation.

Sanctuary cities are careful to employ euphemisms rather than explicit references to illegal immigration. But not labeling San Francisco as an “illegal alien sanctuary” or even an “immigration sanctuary” only institutionalizes the idea of any city becoming a “sanctuary” from any federal law it finds convent. If sanctuary cities continue to flaunt federal immigration laws and if the federal government does not cut off federally earmarked funds to such offenders — or if ICE does not, in Jacksonian style, threaten to use force to arrest and deport illegal aliens — then the concept will spread, and spread well beyond matters of immigration law.

Much of the rural West opposes the Endangered Species Act. Can Wyoming declare that federally protected rats and bugs are not protected inside its state borders, when such pests obstruct construction of dams or highways? Many conservatives oppose federal restrictions on gun sales. Could Oklahoma City declare hand-gun purchases within its city-limits free of federal firearms statutes? Perhaps Little Rock could ignore a Supreme Court ruling and announce that gay marriage is not legal within its jurisdiction. On what rationale would liberals in California object to such nullifications — that neither state nor city had the right to ignore a federal law or to obstruct the law enforcement duties of federal officials?

As a remedy to such reactionary nullification of liberal federal laws, would San Francisco or Los Angeles advocate cutting off federal funds, sending in federal agents, or nationalizing the local or state police? All of these are proven remedies from when recalcitrant southern states refused to abide by federal integration and civil rights laws in the 1960s.

What if the border between California and Nevada was nullified?

The theory of sanctuary cities is entirely hypocritical and self-serving. The idea of sanctuary from immigration law is predicated ultimately on the belief that there are or should be no national borders and thus no legal right to prosecute those who ignore them. But if California is a sanctuary state and Nevada is not, how is that distinction articulated and maintained?

Obviously California believes it has a clearly demarcated border with Nevada and that such a line is a good thing, allowing the Golden State a quite different approach to politics, economics, culture, and society within its own confines. Furthermore, if an illegal alien were speeding over Interstate 80 and crossed the state border into California, the state would object if any non-state law enforcement agent likewise crossed that line to turn him over to ICE for deportation. In other words, a sanctuary city or state is predicated on its ability to create borders not only to establish enforceable jurisdiction, but also as a reification of difference. Sanctuary cities, then, would insist that they have a right to create and enforce borders, and to create unique places within them that differ from other cities.

Nullification now thrives because our “pen and phone” president has decided to suspend federal immigration law enforcement in the manner that — on over 20 occasions before his reelection — he had warned was unconstitutional. But Obama has also ensured the next Republican president that he will have ample liberal precedent to create or neglect laws as his ideological whims dictate. Donald Trump, were he to be elected, might have a very different idea of what qualifies as a sanctuary city or what executive orders are needed to see through agenda with dispatch.

Forget about principles, because there are no consistent principles: sanctuary cities would never allow their precedents to apply to other jurisdictions that did not share their own liberal pieties. They believe federal law is omnipotent for everyone other than their own exalted classes, and they believe that borders, jurisdiction, and the sovereignty of laws are a good thing — but only to the degree that they enhance their own utopian worldview.

The intellectual pedigree of sanctuary cities is not 1960s one-world ecumenicalism, but 1850s Confederate nullification. Their logical consequence is not a wide-open transnational continent, but utter disunion among the states and a second confederate attempt at destroying the primacy of the federal government.

Their politics are not exalted, but parochial, tribal, and demographic: sanctuary cities are predicated on the emergence of a large and politically potent Latino liberal demographic. Otherwise San Francisco or Los Angeles would be willing to turn over to ICE, for example, a lone Serbian illegal alien who had disrupted an environmental rally, or an Australian who overstayed his visa and began participating in “Trump for President” rallies. If thousands of Hungarian atheists were apprehended for committing crimes in Los Angeles, the Catholic archdiocese would stay mum about their deportation.

Nullification, neo-Confederate, tribal, and cynical are the proper epithets for such cities, which are best summed up as “cities of nihilism.”

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture.

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