Monday, August 3, 2015


As someone who is still technically resident in Florida, I am treated to the occasional email blast from my representative in Congress, Vern Buchanan. It is one of the few avenues left in my life through which Red State talking points can find me, and it serves as a check (healthy or otherwise) on my optimism about human affairs. A week ago they sent me a “poll” headlined “Sanctuary for Illegals?” (I imagine there being some sort of office competition to come up with that one – it’s hard to make sanctuary sound scary, so what’s the least human-sounding term we could use for the people affected?) But hey, he’s just asking, right? Don’t be so sensitive.

After impartially weighing the points on both sides and listening deeply to the voices of his constituents, Buchanan evidently came to the following decision at the start of this month. As he informed us by email: “Congress is moving swiftly to ban “sanctuary cities” that provide safe havens to illegal immigrants. With my strong support, the U.S. House passed legislation on July 23 to strip sanctuary cities of federal funds. […] The brutal slaying in San Francisco of Kate Steinle by an illegal immigrant has raised public awareness of this serious problem. […] We must never forget that we are a nation of laws that must be obeyed and enforced[.]”

Murder is still a crime in San Francisco, as you may know, whether it remains a sanctuary city or not, so we can write these sentences off as the cruel and deeply exploitative non sequiturs that they are. Despite pleas from members of Steinle’s family this past week not to turn her death into an excuse for hatred and political posturing, Vern and the rest are doing just that, and worse. They are essentially making the case for the collective punishment of an entire class of people, based on the actions of one person (– if, indeed, that one person’s will was even his own at the time. Police have identified no motive for Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanche's shooting of Kate Steinle. He is described in a way that suggests mental illness, and he has stated he was under the influence of drugs at the time, and that he is deeply remorseful for what he did. The incident he recounts may even have been an accident, involving guns that did not belong to him and that he set off, he claims, unintentionally.)

 The ostensible connection between this tragedy – which might as well have involved any mentally ill and substance-addled US citizen and any other innocent bystander – and SF’s sanctuary ordinance is the claim that Lopez-Sanchez would have been deported by now if the city complied with ICE and federal immigration law. And if he had been, Steinle would still be alive today. Much has been made therefore of Lopez-Sanchez’s prior criminal record, with even the restrained New York Times repeating the “seven felonies” count without telling us what the seven were for. The only items on his earlier rap sheet I have seen reported in the news were drug offenses and the purported "crime" of “illegal reentry” - i.e. crossing the border after deportation. The charge that L-S was facing that might have led to his deportation before the Steinle incident was nothing more heinous than a count of marijuana possession from twenty years earlier.

It is true that had he been forced out of the country for this charge, Steinle would still be alive. She might also be alive, however, if marijuana possession had never been made a crime (I wonder how many of the politicians dog-whistling at the moment over this case have smoked this drug at some point in their past), or if “illegal reentry” were not a felony (most immigration offenses are merely civil violations, even if they are punished by detention or exile, which are plainly criminal-level punishments). In such a case, Lopez-Sanchez might have been able to get his life on track in a way he never did. Perhaps if we had better public care for mental illness… perhaps if L-S had been made a US citizen or lawful resident and therefore jailed when he broke the law instead of being passed back-and-forth across the border five times… perhaps….

We could go on in this vein. Fortunately, it does not matter, because one way or another you cannot deprive people of their basic rights based on hypotheticals about their future actions. We cannot be punished in this country for crimes we have not yet committed, or at least-- we ought not to be. The city of San Francisco saw that it would be wrong to exile a person from the country because of a drug possession charge from twenty years ago, and refused to do it. This has no necessary connection to the tragedy in which Mr. Lopez-Sanchez was later involved, except to the extent it proves once again that having multiple brushes with our government’s various penal instruments is likely to sharpen rather than mitigate problems like mental illness and substance abuse. His is another life blighted by that system, and as always it was the innocent who suffered as a result.

This case, then, is really about collective punishment inspired by mob mentality – and targeted against a group of people who already live in appalling fear and poverty in our country and who most likely pick the food that Vern Buchanan eats (How many hours do you give it between when they sent those emails from Buchanan's office and immigrants – documented or otherwise – came in to remove the trash and clean the toilets?) Because one undocumented immigrant was involved in the death of one white American, we are being asked to blame and possibly deport them all. I could bore you with historical comparisons where this type of logic is concerned. And I will.

This is after all, a tried and true strategy for arresting reform. Here's how it works: After some less punitive criminal justice or immigration measure is passed -- letting a few low-level offenders out of prison, say, or deporting a couple fewer people over their unpaid traffic tickets -- you, as Representative Blowhard of the U.S. Congress, just have to wait until one of the beneficiaries of such a program commits a heinous crime. Then you are free to exploit the victims and their families for your political gain, stir up a moral panic, and lecture the world on how you had tried to warn those Washington bureaucrats about this before it was too late and just look at the inevitable result! (Let us all pray that none of the 46 people Obama pardoned this summer in his (so far) pretty minimal clemency program have another tangle with the law—we know what emails to expect in the weeks after.)

Mr. Lopez-Sanchez, then, is a Willie Horton for our time, complete with bells and dog-whistles. The speeches write themselves: “I’ve got nothing against X –indeed there are many perfectly upstanding, law-abiding Americans who are X – I’m just against criminals, regardless of their letter of the alphabet,” says Rep. Blowhard. (Of course, our invented Congressman is actually behaving better than the real Donald Trump in this speech -- the latter's epithets don’t even deserve to be called dog-whistles, as this implies some effort on the part of the speaker to hide the underlying racism.)

I assume that our Representative Blowhard is a Republican, but plenty of the Democrats are likely to join in the posturing too. Several high-profile Dems have apparently condemned San Francisco’s sanctuary ordinance over the past two weeks, according to the Times -- Senator Feinstein among them -- thereby taking part in what one NGO aptly deems a case of "scapegoating"-- one of the more blatant we've seen in a long time.

If they ever decide to turn an eye toward posterity, they will wish they hadn’t. This is a larger point, but suffice it to say that history is not going to judge us kindly for the way we have treated the millions of people who flood across our borders each decade trying to escape the grinding poverty and violence to our South. If we were looking out at any other part of the world where this was happening, we would have no trouble identifying such a situation as a refugee crisis, and our own close-handed behavior as deplorably mean. As a former boss of mine once put it to me: “You look at the rest of the world, at all these impoverished countries in Africa that receive thousands of people every year fleeing civil wars and whatnot—and what do those governments do? They build camps to house them and let them stay.” Conditions in such refugee camps are often terrible, and receiving countries almost never provide enough space and resources to offer enough shelter for everyone who needs it. But their record is golden compared to what the United States does every year to the people crossing its border, pursued by gangs, violence, and desperation. We place these people in prison, essentially (as of 2012 we were holding half a million immigrants in detention), or return them to the conditions they fled so they can try to cross again, and we otherwise adopt border policies specifically aimed at “deterrence.” (As if we thought people want to risk death of thirst or exposure in the Arizona desert -- as if we didn't realize that if people keep finding their way into such awful conditions every year, they must be trying to get away from something even worse back home). At the moment, the Obama administration is waging a court battle to uphold its detention of the mothers and children who poured into the country from Central America last summer, even though this was one of the most unambiguous cases in which the people arriving were refugees rather than migrants.

Of course, if you ask people whether we should give sanctuary to refugees, you’ll get a yes in nearly every case. Pose the same question about “illegals,” though, and it’s a different story (as Vern Buchanan's communications team seems to have figured out) -- even if all outward circumstances are the same in either case. As George Eliot writes: “Thus words embalm/ The conscience of mankind[.]”

"Sanctuary" is a word I'm fine with -- reminding me most of Quasimodo's flight from his persecutors ("Santuary! Sanctuary!" he cries from the tower of Notre Dame). But perhaps the most helpful word to use here is in fact asylum -- something we are formally obliged to give to those fleeing harm-- not just something we graciously bestow.

A final, tangential thought:

Immigration reformers often focus their outrage on ICE, Customs and Border Patrol and the various other bureaucracies, usually because these are the people who end up on the other side of the dock from them in major litigation battles. And yet, the people who work for such agencies are not setting  out to do harm. I suspect they see themselves as compelled to enforce policies they don’t have much of a hand in creating. They probably didn’t go into their work because they really wanted to spend their careers locking up mothers and children and running a massive system of internment camps with half a million inmates (or leasing out this system to private prison companies). Many of them might welcome reforms if they could.

Such civil servants are victims too, then, of the many Representative Blowhards out there, of both of the major parties, who will rhapsodize to their heart’s content on the subjects of tough-on-crime and tough-on-immigration if it will get them votes, and who never have to witness first-hand the human consequences of their actions. They are the ones I really blame.

Except-- come to think of it, even the Representative Blowhards would not choose to dangle this particular worm so often before us voters if we did not show ourselves willing to bite – if we didn’t buy so easily into the logic that tries to make one act of senseless violence in San Francisco an excuse for the daily violence involved in the mass imprisonment and exile of people who have done nothing wrong. For once, let's not be fooled.

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