Should the City of Arts & Innovation declare itself a sanctuary city?

Three residents made their case to city council on Dec. 19 that Winston-Salem should go on record, along with at least 37 other cities across the country, as a sanctuary city with policies that constrain their police from acting as the long arm of federal immigration enforcement. This would be in defiance of a threat from President-elect Donald Trump to punish these cities by withholding federal funding.

Valeria Cobos told council members that although she’s lived in Winston-Salem for most of her life, she was unable to obtain a driver’s license or access federal student financial aid to attend college after she graduated from high school because of her undocumented status. Only because she was a victim of domestic violence by the father of her child was she able to obtain permanent residency. The rest of her family remains undocumented.

“When President Trump says he’s going to deport criminals, that’s vague,” she said. “We’re all technically criminals for being here without documentation, as he wants to put it. So I realize maybe people say, ‘It’s not feasible to deport 11 million immigrants.’ Well, guess what? Just deporting one person in my family certainly will make it feel like the whole world is going down the drain. Nobody wants to lose a member of your family just because somebody decides you’re not a valid human being or that you shouldn’t deserve any kind of right to stay in this country.”

If cities are going to maintain their status as hubs of innovation and economic growth in the Trump era, they will need to lay down some markers to defend essential values of openness and inclusion. Cities that don’t stand up for their values may have a tough time attracting the talent they need to prosper. Maybe this is the place to draw a line, or even pick a fight before Trump takes office and consolidates power.

Winston-Salem wouldn’t be the first, of course. Burlington, Vt. has enacted a sanctuary city policy in reaction to Trump’s election, while Urbana, Ill. and Pittsburgh are considering similar measures.

The nation’s largest cities have set the example. In his #AlwaysNewYork speech two weeks after the election, Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed to legally resist any attempt by the federal government to create a registry of Muslims, to protect immigrant families threatened with deportation and to ensure that stop-and-frisk policing is not resurrected in New York. And on Dec. 19, the city and county of Los Angeles unveiled a $10 million fund, raised from public and private sources, to provide legal services to immigrants facing deportation.

Proponents of defying Trump over sanctuary cities cite the 10th Amendment as a roadblock, or at least a speed bump, to slow down the president-elect’s efforts to carry out the threat. There are grounds for optimism: The US Supreme Court established a “germaneness rule” in the 1987 South Dakota v. Dole case, which addressed the question of whether the feds could withhold highway funds to a state that refused to raise the legal drinking age to 21. In that case, they could because the purpose of the funds was safe interstate travel. Withholding federal public safety funds for political reasons would be a stretch, considering the compelling argument that sanctuary cities actually enhance safety by giving victims and witnesses who are undocumented the confidence to come forward and report crimes to law enforcement.

The 10th Amendment defense in North Carolina is complicated, to say the least, by the fact that HB 318, signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory in Greensboro last year, specifically prohibits adoption of any “sanctuary ordinance” by cities or counties.

A little recent history is in order. North Carolina politicians ran with the inflammatory demagoguery against undocumented immigrants whipped up by Trump when most journalists were still predicting that the president-elect would get knocked out of contention by a more moderate Republican candidate. Speaking on the state House floor, Rep. George Cleveland (R-Onslow) argued in favor of HB 318 using language reminiscent of Trump’s slanderous xenophobia by saying that undocumented immigrants have “committed murder, they’ve committed rape, they’ve committed child abuse, and they’re here because we allow it.”

The bill’s backers were well aware of its national resonance.

“Hopefully, we’re seeing in the presidential race, this is becoming an issue,” Rep. John Blust (R-Guilford) said during debate over the bill in September 2015.

And when he signed the bill into law, Gov. McCrory suggested North Carolina was setting an example for the rest of the country, saying, “We want to be the model of how to do things right in North Carolina and in our country.”

In this case, picking a fight with Washington likely also means picking a fight with Raleigh. I somehow doubt there would be much love lost.

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