August 22, 2007

Republicans Cry Sanctuary

As I've written on Oval Office 2008, immigration is turning into a wedge issue within the Republican primary. The issue is whether a city government should provide services to people regardless of their immigration status, up to and including instructing employees to not inquire about the immigration status of applicants for city services. These kinds of policies are being labelled by Mitt Romney as rendering the municipal governments "sanctuary cities" and encouraging illegal immigration -- it's an attack on Rudy Giuliani because New York City had such a policy when Hizzonner was Mayor of the Big Apple.

Such policies are, understandably, unpopular. They involve intentionally winking at illegal activity. They involve spending public money on people who, after all, shouldn't be here in the first place. Illegal immigrants are kind of pariahs anyway; many people seem to think that when you enter the country illegally, you forfeit any kind of rights and don't feel particularly sorry for those illegal immigrants who get beat up by police, exploited by coyotes and ruthless "employers," or victimized by the vagaries of life here -- because these people are, after all, criminals.

In the Fish Wrapper today, a typically left-of-center columnist defends such "sanctuary" policies. Is it really in our own best interest to not treat someone with tuberculosis? Should we discourage parents from sending their kids to school? Are we better off to turn a blind eye when violent or property crimes are committed against certain kinds of people? Or does allowing those programs to fester and metastasize through a condescending neglect wind up hurting citizens more in the long run than it helps conserve resources in the short run?

It takes individualization of rights and government services too far to say that illegal immigrants don't have a "right" to such public services. Perhaps that's true in a deliberately myopic view of such services. But that view ignores the fact that such services are provided as a public benefit as well as to help individuals. I benefit when someone who mugs an illegal immigrant is captured by the police -- it means that it's now less likely that the mugger will attack me in the future. I benefit when a public hospital dispenses antibiotics to an undocumented child suffering from a disease -- the pathogen doesn't care about whether the kid has a green card or not; it wants to move from the kid to me so I too can be infected. Kill the pathogen first and worry about the green card later.

Politically, the attack seems to have caught the Giuliani camp off guard. Their response has been to say "No, Rudy's tough on immigration; he wants an ocean-to-ocean wall separating us from Mexico!" and then to add "And ask Governor Romney about the illegal aliens who mowed his lawn back in Boston!"

The right thing to do would be to say, "It's cheaper to treat one illegal alien than ten citizens. And reversing 'sanctuary' policies won't discourage illegal immigration at all -- illegal immigrants don't come here looking for free social services, they come here looking for work." It's also simply untrue that Republicans are uniformly anti-immigration anyway. Many think that some kind of a modified amnesty program is probably a good idea; they recognize that we need the labor and we need the people.

Rudy's response to Romney's attack was to immediately jump to the right; that was a mistake when he did it with abortion and it's a mistake to do it with this issue. He needs to not flinch and instead find a clear, simple way to demonstrate why he was right all along. He's explained why sending police after graffiti and panhandling led to decreases in robberies, rapes, and murders in New York. He inelegantly found a way to do reconcile his pro-choice stance on abortion with the general distaste for abortions that underlies the Republicans' unease with a pro-choice candidate. There's no reason he can't do it on this issue, too.

Calling Romney a hypocrite is a nice move, though.

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