Politics & Policy

Sanctuary Sanctimony

In recent weeks, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani have attacked each other’s records on a range of important issues, including taxes, crime, health care, and immigration. On the last issue, Mayor Giuliani’s record is troubling. He supported tuition breaks for illegal immigrants at New York’s City University and sued over a provision in the federal welfare-reform law that denied some benefits to recent immigrants. He supported giving public benefits to illegal immigrants and supported amnesty in the guise of “comprehensive” immigration reform. He has not rescinded his support for amnesty to this day. But the line of attack Romney has chosen is spurious, and in fact highlights a sensible Giuliani policy on illegal immigrants. The governor’s alternative policy is — for the time being, at least — unwise and unworkable.

Some jurisdictions have declared themselves “sanctuaries” that will turn a blind eye to the immigration status of their residents. Under Mayor Giuliani, New York City became one of them. It prohibited city employees from inquiring about the status of residents seeking city services, unless they were criminal suspects. In defense of his policy, Giuliani explains that he didn’t want to discourage illegal aliens from cooperating with police if they had been victimized or had witnessed a crime, and didn’t want to deter them from seeking medical attention or enrolling their children in school. He points out that there were an estimated 400,000 illegal aliens in the city, including thousands of criminal aliens. Overwhelmed federal immigration officials were able to detain only a small minority of the criminal aliens they were notified about.

Romney’s press releases attack Giuliani’s policy, declaring, “Mayor Giuliani ran New York City with a sanctuary state of mind.” In campaign ads, the former governor pledges to withhold federal funds from cities that forbid their officials to enforce federal immigration laws.

Along with our porous borders and the non-enforcement of employment prohibitions, the flamboyant declaration of “sanctuary” policies contributes to the problem of illegal immigration. But jurisdictions without explicit sanctuary policies operate as de facto sanctuaries anyway, since federal negligence allows the illegal population to soar everywhere. Officials in most jurisdictions with large illegal-immigrant populations share Giuliani’s concern that inhibiting cooperation with local police would permit crime to flourish within those populations. They are responding rationally to a chaotic system. Fixing the many problems of that system demands a triage approach.

The border has to be secured, and the prohibition on employing illegal aliens enforced. Available federal resources should also be concentrated on detaining and deporting criminal aliens. Under current law, deportable criminal aliens whose native countries refuse to accept them can be detained for only six months before being released. The majority of criminal aliens are not detained, and, since 2004, 1,800 detained, deportable criminal aliens have been released because their native countries refused their return. This lack of cooperation from countries such as China, India, and Vietnam makes the entire United States a sanctuary for criminal aliens. This problem demands immediate attention.

Rather than stopping an illegal immigrant from reporting a rape or robbery, Giuliani adopted a humane and realistic policy that acknowledged the woeful inability of federal immigration officials to deal with those felonious aliens who pose a threat to the public. Once the illegal-immigrant population is brought down to a much lower level than today’s, cities might reasonably be expected to adopt different policies. But we are not near that point yet, and we should begin our efforts to shrink the illegal population by deporting its most dangerous and least welcome members.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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