Slouching Toward Refuge 

Trump’s war against immigrants is taking us back to a bleaker time.

A looming battle is building between United States cities, some states, and the federal government. The issue involves sanctuary status for communities reluctant to cooperate with officials of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), given the Trump administration's stated goal of detaining and deporting all undocumented persons.

The modern sanctuary movement began in the 1980s when perhaps a million people from Central America fled their war-torn homelands (the wars, in all cases, partially financed by the United States). Reagan-era (1980-88) policy referred to these folks as economic migrants. (According to this logic, the migrants were fleeing poverty, not the wars we promoted.)

President Ronald Reagan refused to acknowledge the political dimension of the conflict, and thus, migrants were ineligible for protection under the 1980 Refugee Act. Against this backdrop, some cities with significant Hispanic populations organized a "sanctuary" movement to provide shelter (mostly in religious houses of worship), protection, and aid for people who, literally, were running for their lives.

So we go, historically, from bad to worse.

Back in the 1980s, our nation actively pursued Cold War proxy wars in Central America, the arms industry profited from those wars, we helped destroy infrastructure in three Central American nations displacing multitudes, and then we shut our doors to fleeing refugees. All of this seems, when looked at holistically, especially cruel, written not in conformity with reality but for a modern, tragic Italian opera.

Now we have Mr. Trump, a Reagan redux but without the charm, affability, or charisma of the great communicator. The two presidents share one important characteristic: cluelessness. Given Trump's recent executive orders, we see a rapid descent back to the '80s, but this time, thanks to technology, the world can watch the tragedy in real time.

Trump's executive order regarding refugees seeks to ban people from some majority Muslim nations and is especially unkind, given that one of the nations on the original list, Iraq, was completely destroyed by the U.S. in the illegal (but profitable) war of 2003 that never really ended. Syria is on the list, a country we've begun bombing with cruel consequences for a civilian population stuck in a sectarian civil war. Trump's order, rewritten to pass constitutional muster in the eyes of skeptical judges, has been enjoined once more by skeptical judges.

The President's executive order on immigration seeks to fulfill an unfulfillable campaign promise: to deport all "illegals." Given that the administration is determined to win somewhere, sanctuary status for cities — and a few states — has reappeared in the media, with Trump threatening to pull federal grant money in retaliation for these cities' noncompliance with federal mandates.

The current sanctuary movement is about city leaders protecting the people within their jurisdictions from federal overreach; the central concern involves trust and public safety.

For example, police departments need support from people living in cities and communities who witness crimes; their job is not to enforce federal (and, in this case, politically motivated) immigration executive orders, but to protect people from petty and more serious crimes. When the police are seen as potential agents of deportation, police work and public safety collapse. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions doesn't seem to understand any of this and has reacted by bullying local officials, reminiscent of the mid-19th-century Alabama leadership style that defines him.

Trump has already made it clear that raids and deportations will occur as America cracks down on the undocumented. Unlike his predecessor, Mr. Obama, who deported a lot of people, Trump wants to round up everyone who is not in the country with proper documentation — including women and children. People who cross a border without permission, or overstay a tourist visa, have committed a civil code violation, not a crime. Only a cruel cynic could accuse a child who crosses a border with parents or relatives of having committed any type of legal violation. But this administration, unfortunately, is bringing new meaning to cruel and unusual.

We need collaboration between federal and local officials. We don't need a mass roundup of innocents to appease the political positions of a few fanatics. A showdown between some states/many cities and the federal government is approaching, but given the path this administration is charting, we might be heading back not to the 1980s, but way back to the 1860s.

Bryce Ashby is a Memphis-based attorney and board chair at Latino Memphis. Michael J. LaRosa is an associate professor of history at Rhodes College.

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