As a political conservative, I am committed to the principle of "subsidiarity"--the idea that government closest to the people is normally the most appropriate to deal with their problems. Nonetheless, as our Founding Fathers anticipated, there are areas of concern that, by their nature, are better dealt with at the federal level.
The control of our borders is one of those concerns.
In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that immigration policy is one area over which Congress has plenary, or absolute, jurisdiction.
In this context the designation of Los Angeles as a city of "sanctuary" is most disturbing. The City Council, in encouraging undocumented persons from Central America to flout our immigration laws, is as defiant of the delicate balance of our federal system as was South Carolina's decision in 1832 to ignore federal tariff laws. As students of history know, that Nullification Doctrine brought the states'-rights argument to a conclusion in secession.
Multiple immigration policies throughout our nation, each reflecting the political whims of its locality, undermine any hope that we might have of ever gaining realistic control over our borders. The pronouncement of sanctuary is most likely to be a magnet to many thousands of Latin Americans who are not in jeopardy in their home countries but only wish, with the best of motives, to improve the economic well-being of themselves and their family members.
Such a probability was illustrated by a Spanish International Network television poll among Salvadorans, in which 67% of the respondents expressed a desire to come to the United States for work. Salvadorans already are the second-largest national group (after Mexican nationals) apprehended as illegal entrants to the United States.
The effect of immigration is such that it is impossible to limit the effects to a particular locality. Even if those who accept the invitation of sanctuary locate in Los Angeles, their presence is likely to be felt in communities that had no part in the city's extension of hospitality. If these individuals are granted "extended voluntary departure" status (permission to stay here until the situation improves at home--essentially, a legal limbo) as the City Council urges, they will be here "under color of law." Federal court decisions have suggested that such status would entitle them to federal benefits and other services. The net effect would be the taxpayers of, say, Des Moines having to subsidize a decision over which they had no part.
In short, there are compelling institutional reasons why immigration policy cannot be set locally. Because it is a national challenge and problem, it must be addressed by those elected on the federal level. Only then is it possible for a realistic policy to be devised, and for the communities affected by the flow of human beings across our borders to have a say in the formulation of that policy. The concept of representative government demands nothing less.
In any case the offer of "sanctuary" by the Los Angeles City Council is likely to prove to be hollow and misleading. While defended by its supporters as merely symbolic, it is likely to be misunderstood by many in Central and South America. This is because the ecclesiastical connotation of the term implies a "safe haven" from government oppression or persecution. Yet the City Council's action can have no binding authority on the federal government's actions.
Even if the sanctuary declaration is more symbol than substance, it is still a very grave move. One of law's important functions is education. When those in public life seek to transcend the law, they are conveying a subtle but nonetheless important message to the public. In this instance elected officials apparently feel that there are considerations that outweigh the need for a uniform immigration policy. I do not in any way wish to impugn their motives. However, ideas have consequences, and one cannot completely divorce a contempt for one statutory scheme from its effect on the perceptions of the law in general. In other words, the integrity of the law is undermined by such action.
The people who seek to send out "signals" on the immigration issue in this manner do not advance the formulation of meaningful public policy, but merely confuse it. The control of our borders is a national issue, and Congress is now in the midst of considering a comprehensive reform of our immigration laws. I trust that Congress will not be distracted by a few communities' attempt to usurp our federal system and its laws.