Federal Leaders Need To Rein In Cities That Go Against Policy

By Mark Krikorian on September 30, 2007

San Francisco Chronicle, September 30, 2007

Should Americans care about San Francisco having its own immigration policy? Maybe the rest of the country should just shrug off Supervisor Tom Ammiano's proposed ordinance to issue ID cards to illegal immigrants as just the latest example of sanctimonious but meaningless grandstanding by municipal governments, like divestment from Burma or boycotting Pepsi or declaring a nuclear-free zone.

That would be a mistake.

Issuing city identification cards to illegal immigrants would not be a symbolic measure, but a very real subversion of the federal government's efforts to control immigration. Measures like this are moved by the spirit of the "nullification doctrine," the principle affirmed by the slave states of the antebellum South so that they could override federal law.

This is because immigration enforcement is not exclusively about guarding the border and chasing after illegal immigrants who manage to get in. Immigration control also requires what might be called a "firewall strategy," which would make it as difficult as possible to live and work here illegally, so that prospective illegal immigrants don't come and those already here give up and deport themselves.

With a municipal ID card, illegal immigrants could embed themselves in our country, making it easier for them to live and work here. The result would be increased illegal immigration and a decreased return migration of illegal immigrants.

This month, New Haven, Conn., became the first city to issue municipal ID cards for illegal immigrants, but there are other actions that state and local governments have been taking to accommodate and help embed illegal immigrants. Some (including San Francisco and Oakland) have declared themselves "sanctuary cities," barring police or other municipal employees from getting involved in immigration questions.

At the state level, some legislatures have passed laws giving in-state tuition subsidies to illegal immigrants that are not offered to out-of-state Americans. The governor of Illinois last month signed a bill barring employers in the state from using a federal online system to verify a new hire's legal status. And just this month New York announced that it would start issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

In none of these cases can the city or state governments claim they're simply dealing with local concerns, leaving immigration to the federal government. Every policy that makes it more attractive to live here in violation of federal law promotes illegal immigration. And even in a simple physical sense, immigration is a national issue; once an illegal immigrant gets established in San Francisco or New York, there's little to stop him from traveling to Alabama or Michigan.

Because the federal government is, indeed, in charge of immigration, Washington needs to act to rein in those states and cities that are attempting to nullify federal policy. An encouraging example happened Monday, as federal lawyers filed suit against Illinois, claiming the state's ban on the use of the verification system is a "direct assault on the federal law," in the words of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

Other illegal state and local measures must also be challenged by Washington. Sanctuary city ordinances and in-state tuition for illegal immigrants are both prohibited by the 1996 immigration law, but two successive administrations ignored the federal bans. And although it appears that Supervisor Ammiano's municipal ID scheme doesn't violate any federal law, Congress should act to deny federal funds in the future to local governments that issue IDs to illegal immigrants.

Local neutrality on immigration is no longer possible. Every jurisdiction in the country has a choice to make: Either buttress federal efforts at immigration control or subvert them. San Francisco has chosen the second option. It should now learn the consequences.

Mark Krikorian is Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies.