Split Over Sanctuary Cities Could Shut Down Government

By April 28, Congress must agree to a budget deal to continue operating the federal government.  While this would ordinarily not be a monumental task, some new challenges face Congress in 2017: Their Easter recess eats up time until one week before the budget deadline, and partisan tensions are at an all-time high. U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has already threatened that he will refuse any budget proposal that does not increase defense spending, and multiple Democrats have also indicated that they are willing to shut down the government as well.

Initially, the brouhaha was over the funding of discretionary spending. This spending, which is separate from entitlement spending on Social Security and Medicare, consists of military and civilian agency funding. To avoid deepening the federal deficit, any increase in one sector of discretionary spending would require equal cuts in the other sector. President Donald Trump has insisted that the U.S. will boost defense spending by roughly 10 percent, necessitating equally sharp cuts among all civilian agencies not involved in homeland security.

Democrats have decried Trump’s budget proposal as outlandish and detrimental to poor and working-class citizens. Even Republicans have largely been less than thrilled. Despite the GOP’s traditional love of defense spending, virtually every U.S. Representative and Senator has at least one non-security civilian agency that is important to his or her district. 

But now a new issue arises even thornier than cutting civilian spending, which Democrats have labeled a no-go: Cutting federal funding for “sanctuary cities” that defy federal law. Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director, wants any budget resolution to include language that “restrict federal funding grants for cities that do not enforce federal immigration policies.”  Currently, several liberal cities do not cooperate with federal authorities when it comes to reporting the arrests or detainments of undocumented immigrants.

The situation has created strange bedfellows: Liberals, ordinarily no friends of the “states’ rights” and “local control” camps, are suddenly very much opposed to the interference of Washington when it comes to immigration. Conservatives, usually fiscal spendthrifts and law-and-order aficionados, may find it tough to justify paying for Donald Trump’s proposed border wall and allowing police inroads with immigrant communities to erode. 

Currently, police departments in sanctuary cities are defending their non-cooperation with immigration authorities as necessary to reduce crime. Allegedly, despite the notoriety of high-profile crimes committed by illegal immigrants who were released from police custody rather than being turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), sanctuary cities help law enforcement by making immigrants feel comfortable reporting crimes and assisting police.  Liberals argue that cracking down on sanctuary cities will increase crime by emboldening criminals, regardless of their citizenship status, who prey on undocumented immigrants.

Ethics and emotionalism aside, Republican plans to defund sanctuary cities could backfire through rampant collateral damage. Essentially, there is little way for the federal government to cut federal grants to cities and know where jobs and funding will be lost. A majority of law enforcement officers tend to lean Republican, which means that defunding sanctuary cities could cost the GOP votes. First responders also tend to be rather high profile within communities, meaning they are a bad political enemy to make. Individual U.S. Representatives and Senators will not want to be caught voting for a budget bill that would potentially cut funding for first responders.

Even conservative strongholds like Texas may be at political risk when it comes to sanctuary cities. Due to changing demographics, the Republican Party is at a disadvantage and should seek to broaden its appeal among minorities, particularly Hispanics, not limit it. Insisting on strict immigration laws, and perhaps even building a border wall, is one thing- increasing deportations and defunding municipalities is something else entirely, and will create lasting resentments.

It will be difficult for the GOP to make appeals to the Hispanic community while going so far as to force local governments to cut jobs over the issue of immigration. Such a maneuver shows that the Trump administration is willing to hurt U.S. citizens, including decorated first responders, to make its point on immigration reform. Frankly, it’s tough to justify.

But now that the threat has been made, it cannot be withdrawn without losing face. After a painful defeat on healthcare reform, the Trump administration is aching for a legislative victory.  Dropping the budgetary demand of defunding sanctuary cities will be seen as another defeat, and could also embolden Democrats to further resist GOP initiatives. It might also embolden sanctuary cities to further refuse cooperation with federal authorities. 

If Democrats in Congress accept the Trump proposal to defund sanctuary cities, they will be accused of weakness and complicity. If conservatives in Congress refuse to support the proposal, they will be accused of being RINOs, or Republicans-In-Name-Only, and betraying their conservative constituents. Similar to the tense situation regarding healthcare reform, there seems to be little motivation for compromise.

But, unlike with the recent healthcare vote, a federal shutdown is on the line. Every member of Congress will potentially face the wrath of voters if his or her refusal to compromise leads to the indefinite shutting down of non-essential federal agencies. As we get closer to April 28, will members of Congress continue to stand firm… or begin to blink?

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