Mayors and other officials in so-called sanctuary cities across the country have widely dismissed President Trump’s threat to ship asylum-seeking immigrants their way as a political stunt, but most also have tried to defuse it by rolling out the welcome mat for prospective immigrants.
“The city would be prepared to welcome these immigrants just as we have embraced our immigrant communities for decades,” Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement.
Outgoing Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel was equally adamant about his city’s commitment to opening its doors to newcomers who have entered the country both legally and illegally.
“As a welcoming city, we would welcome these migrants with open arms, just as we welcomed Syrian refugees, just as we welcomed Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria,” he said.
After Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan penned an op-ed in the Washington Post headlined “Seattle isn’t afraid of immigrants, Mr. Trump,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti chimed in.
“L.A. isn’t afraid either!” he tweeted.
And Newark Mayor Ras Baraka argued that new immigrants to his city would be a net positive for the city’s economy.
“His curse is our blessing,” Baraka told MSNBC, referring to Trump. “Many of these immigrants have kept cities afloat in difficult economic times. They opened up stores, they purchase goods and services in the community, uplifted our economy. So this does nothing but create more opportunity for folks in our city.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio earlier this week became the noted exception, pledging to go to court to stop Trump from sending asylum seekers to New York City.
“It’s illegal. It is just plain illegal. We will meet him in court. We will beat him in court,” de Blasio told a local television station Monday night.
De Blasio’s decision to more aggressively push back against the Trump threat could be rooted in his personal ambitions – he’s currently weighing a presidential bid. But it could also be simply aimed at addressing the complete ambiguity about how the government would implement such a policy and the difficulty in predicting just how far the Trump administration might go in trying to punish sanctuary cities and states now that White House senior adviser and immigration hardliner Stephen Miller is in charge of the Homeland Security portfolio.
Trump’s decision to have Miller oversee border policy came last week after the president ousted a slew of top Department of Homeland Security officials over frustration they weren’t aggressive enough in trying to increase deportations and curb illegal border crossings. The officials had said they were hamstrung by the country’s immigration laws, which they said are in desperate need of reform.
Customs and Border Protection officials have recently said that border facilities have reached their breaking point. The Border Patrol has been facing a record influx of immigrants since the fall and the numbers escalated to nearly 100,000 last month thanks to the annual spring surge before the intense summer heat.
On Monday, Trump doubled down on this threat to send asylum-seeking immigrants to sanctuary cities — municipalities that have passed laws limiting the cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration agents.
The president tweeted that “illegal immigrants who can no longer be legally held (Congress must fix the laws and loopholes) will be, subject to Homeland Security, given to sanctuary cities and states!”
It’s difficult to discern the seriousness of these statements after Trump repeatedly and emphatically threatened to shut down the border last month before backing down.
The impact of this specific threat to sanctuary cities depends, of course, entirely on how the policy would play out.
“If done in an orderly manner and paced, arguably a good number of these people would end up in the sanctuary cities anyway, and they have economies that could absorb their labor,” said Louis DeSipio, a professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine. “That would just happen gradually and by natural processes.”
But if suddenly more than 100,000 people were dropped off in a matter of weeks into one city, that could overwhelm the area’s infrastructure and resources even if they are abundant, DeSipio said. He cited the mass exodus of 125,000 Cubans from Havana to Miami during the Mariel boatlift of the early 1980s. The city’s infrastructure, education resources and labor market, as well as those of the entire state of Florida, were overwhelmed.
Others, however, argue the parallel doesn’t work because Castro tried to embarrass the United States by allowing 2,746 criminals and mentally ill people to emigrate from Cuba as part of the exodus.
“That was a whole lot of people going to one place, and it wasn’t a big place, and it was totally chaotic,” Roberto Suro, a professor of public policy at the University of Southern California, told RCP. “It was very different than what we’re seeing right now, having people screened by American authorities and sending them on to their destinations. Castro emptied out all the jails and the mental health hospitals and dumped all these people into Miami.”
In fact, Suro said, the Trump threat to send Central American immigrants to sanctuary cities isn’t a threat at all and could very well be a dream come true for many fleeing the violence in their home countries. This is especially true if they are sent to big cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, where most of the immigration courts and judges are located, facilitating efficient adjudication, he said.
These cities also have substantial legal resources and immigrant rights organizations to help new arrivals navigate the legal process and resettle. And most importantly, Suro said, they have large well-established communities of Latino immigrants, including many from the Northern Triangle nations of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, as well as relatives of asylum seekers who can help them find housing, jobs and services.
“If you were to design the plan for resettlement of these immigrants that was meant to be orderly and cost effective to the immigrants, you would do this,” Suro said. “This is really good policy design. … It’s what a great many of these migrants would want.”
The combined populations of the Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco metro areas is so large that settling even 500,000 asylum seekers among them would be “barely a blip demographically,” Suro said. “And seeing that these cities have been seeing flat population growth for some time, they might actually welcome newcomers.”
Of course, the reverse is also true. There are many smaller cities that have declared themselves sanctuaries, such as Santa Ana, Calif., Burlington, Vt., Hartford, Conn., and more medium-sized cities such as Portland, Ore., and Boston.
Shipping even a couple of thousand people to these areas could overload resources and infrastructure, creating severe headaches for city officials and no doubt headlines about it for months. Such a scenario would undoubtedly fuel more charges that the president is using immigrants’ hardships to play a particularly cruel game of hardball politics.
Even in those situations, it’s likely that the asylum seekers would quickly move on and travel to areas where they have friends and family members.
“It would be very hard to impose geographic restrictions on the movement of people,” DeSipio said.
Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics’ White House/national political correspondent.