The word “sanctuary” conjures up a vision of safety, protection, and shelter. But in a sanctuary city like New York — a place as wealthy as it is impoverished — can immigrants really feel safe?
In early April, many New Yorkers were surprised to learn that the New York City Police Department (NYPD) was tipping off Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) agents about immigrants’ court dates. Mayor Bill de Blasio, like other liberal big city leaders, had loudly voiced his opposition to Donald Trump and professed his support for maintaining New York as a sanctuary city. He’d vowed to protect immigrants and not honor ICE detainers.
And now New York City was apparently fueling the deportation machine.
Larry Byrne, NYPD deputy commissioner of legal matters, rushed to explain the apparent incongruity. This was nothing new, he noted: the city works with ICE to deport immigrants, legal or undocumented, with prior felony convictions. After the NYPD makes an arrest, it fingerprints the suspect and sends the information to Albany, whose law enforcement databases have long been integrated with federal agencies’. When the NYPD picks up an undocumented immigrant, ICE automatically gets a tip.
This policy pivots on the constructed narrative of the “good immigrant,” who deserves the opportunities the country offers, as opposed to the “bad immigrant,” who is criminally inclined and intent on using and abusing the rights, benefits, and safety of other Americans. Since the advent of the “war on drugs” in particular, New York politicians have built their careers around this narrative genre, deploying “law-and-order” measures instead of (or at best in conjunction with) social programs.
In the case of de Blasio, this shows up in his commitment to zero-tolerance policing, also known as “broken windows.” While de Blasio tours the country bragging about his progressive credentials and shoring up support for his reelection bid, New York City’s immigrants, like many of its other residents, find themselves mired in the interlocking crises of unaffordable housing, poverty, homelessness, and state disinvestment. These crises, compounded by the fear of deportation, expose immigrants to broken-windows policing’s racial profiling and quota-driven practices.
New York City may have little influence over Albany’s collaboration with federal agencies, but its political class makes billion-dollar investments in surveillance and law enforcement, while funneling tax breaks to the wealthy. Under the guise of law and order, police crack down on “deviance,” “criminal elements,” and “disruptive protesters” in order to maintain a stable environment for business, tourism, and real estate growth.
When we think of New York City, “sanctuary” should be the last word to come to mind.
From Terrorism to Immigration
The current deportation regime is largely a post-9/11 creation.
When George W. Bush entered the Oval Office in 2001, he inherited an exceptionally repressive state. Already its coerciveness rivaled those of authoritarian countries.
But with the onset of the “war on terror,” the US state ascended to new heights of repression, transforming into a sprawling security apparatus capable of mass surveillance and intelligence gathering.
Along the way, it militarized local law enforcement, encouraged further collaboration between federal and state agencies, and beefed up local police departments’ surveillance capacity.
Local police not only received a stream of military weapons, but were inundated with the day’s ruling rhetoric, which proclaimed that an internal enemy was operating in the shadows and had to be neutralized. Cops began to mimic the mentality of soldiers at war. They started carrying machine guns and “non-lethal” weapons for riot control.
New York City stood out even amidst this galloping militarization. When the city’s police commissioner, Ray Kelly, grew frustrated that his department wasn’t receiving enough resources from the federal government, he created his own intelligence and surveillance task forces, modeled after the CIA and the FBI.
Before long, Kelly’s crew started spying on and entrapping New York’s Muslim residents, while the NYPD’s Intelligence Division released an internal report (“Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat”) justifying their practices. With fear-mongering and mass victimization the order of the day, the political establishment applauded the department’s initiative.
At the same time, anti-immigrant groups seized on the widespread paranoia to swell their ranks and try to turn the metastasizing security state on the immigrant community. Nativist politicians like Republican representative Tom Tancredo were all too happy to oblige.
Tancredo’s House Immigration Reform Caucus (HRIC), founded in 1999, ballooned in size after 9/11 and swiftly moved from the margins to the American political mainstream, pushing a far-right, nativist agenda backed by groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and the Center for Immigration Studies.
In the 2005–6 congressional session, the HIRC prioritized the so-called Sensenbrenner Bill, which went to new lengths to criminalize immigrant communities. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their allies mobilized mega-marches against the bill and successfully killed it in the Senate.
But nativist forces, undeterred, pivoted from the national level and launched a state-by-state assault. As scholar Alfonso Gonzalez notes, “The number of anti-migrant bills at the state level doubled between 2006 and 2007. In 2007, there were 1,562 immigration related bills in all of the fifty states. A total of 240 bills became law in forty-six states.”
New York City’s billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg, denounced the Sensenbrenner Bill, largely because of the damage it would cause to the state’s economy to deport New York’s one million undocumented immigrants. The state’s newly elected governor, Eliot Spitzer, rolled back legislation that made it almost impossible for undocumented immigrants to secure a driver’s license. And the New York State Legislature adopted a resolution calling on Congress to renounce the Sensenbrenner Bill, leaving congressman Peter King, coauthor of the legislation and the only state politician who sponsored the bill, politically isolated.
But the discursive residue of the Sensenbrenner Bill continued to undercut the national immigrant rights movement. The debate around the legislation helped propel the good immigrant/ bad immigrant dichotomy into the mainstream. Even after the bill’s demise, politicians in both parties reached for the good immigrant/ bad immigrant framework to justify the latest in draconian enforcement.
Take Secure Communities. One of George W. Bush’s most significant anti-immigrant initiatives, Secure Communities integrated ICE’s operations with state law enforcement so the federal agency could detain and deport any undocumented immigrant the police arrested. When it launched as a pilot program in 2008, Secure Communities partnered with fourteen jurisdictions. By January 2013, right before Obama began his second term in office, ICE had completed its fusion with state law enforcement in all 3,181 jurisdictions.
Obama deployed Secure Communities for the same purposes Bush had set out, and used the same good immigrant/ bad immigrant rhetoric.
The resulting mass deportations sparked enormous protests from precisely the base that had delivered the Democrats a congressional majority. Chasing the Latino vote on the campaign trail in 2012, Obama introduced Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) after DREAMers occupied his campaign offices in swing states to pressure the administration.
Under the new program, ICE would only detain and deport immigrants with criminal convictions. The cord between state and federal law enforcement databases, however, remained intact.
Indeed, the previous year New York governor Andrew Cuomo, facing a wave of pressure himself, had pulled New York out of the Secure Communities program. But it was too late: the state’s databases were already integrated with the federal government’s, and the network remains operational today.
Good Immigrant/ Bad Immigrant
In the course of defending the NYPD’s collaboration with ICE earlier this year, Larry Byrne used an old trick: he stressed the two detained immigrants’ felony convictions.
In January, Mayor de Blasio used the same good immigrant/ bad immigrant framing in an interview with Jake Tapper. When asked about the threat of criminal immigrants, de Blasio responded, “anyone who is violent, anyone who is a serious threat to society . . . they get deported.”
The very same month, a tense exchange at a state budget hearing illustrated the perils of acceding to such framing. Republican assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis deployed a litany of right-wing talking points about criminal immigrants while de Blasio defended the city’s policy. But near the end of the sparring, the mayor signaled his eagerness to “continue the dialogue,” and he subsequently expanded the list of felony offenses that trigger cooperation between the NYPD and ICE.
Any credence given to the good immigrant/ bad immigrant framework is politically disarming, granting only conditional support to immigrants and ultimately enabling intensified police scrutiny.
Criminalizing immigrants encourages cops to tip off ICE when they interact with immigrants they perceive, for racist reasons or otherwise, as criminal. In a radio interview, Ed Mullins, president of the Sergeant’s Benevolent Association of the NYPD, made this exact point:
Make no mistake about it: the members of law enforcement in the NYPD want to cooperate with ICE. I speak to cops every day — they want to cooperate with ICE, they want to work with fellow law enforcement agents.
New York’s anti-crime strategy is clear: criminalize whole communities and implement zero-tolerance policing, rather than mobilize resources and stop crimes largely motivated by poverty and exclusion.
And the good immigrant/ bad immigrant narrative plays into this. As Juan Carlos Ruiz, cofounder of the New Sanctuary Movement of NYC said in an interview,
The card of the good/ bad immigrant has been overplayed. It is a smokescreen that detracts our attention from utilizing our resources to where they are really needed. In short, it is a steal from all our communities for the benefit of those who profit from a system that blames and victimizes the majority.
Deportation and Broken Windows
Lopsided priorities and pervasive law-and-order rhetoric have shared origins in the politically and economically turbulent 1970s. This discourse justified flooding communities of color with police, who found it easier to manufacture public consent once crack cocaine invaded the inner cities.
In New York, the war on drugs was born as the 1975 fiscal crisis threatened the city with bankruptcy. Mayor Ed Koch rolled back the welfare state, and threats of mass layoffs cowed the labor movement. As social conditions worsened, ruling elites unleashed the police to tame what they feared would be rising social instability.
This austerity-plus-policing mix spread across the United States, eventually producing the system of mass incarceration that now imprisons over two million citizens.
In New York, it left the world’s second wealthiest city with a homeless population exceeding sixty thousand people and cleared the way for gentrification around the city. These days, many working people don’t even have to leave their neighborhoods to see who is enjoying the fruits of the economic recovery.
In the midst of all these social crises, immigrants face intensified policing.
But though many have criticized the broken windows strategy’s effectiveness, the country’s most liberal mayor defends it. It’s easier to police a community when its members don’t fear deportation, de Blasio reasons.
In reality, broken windows policing supplements Trump’s mass deportation operation because it demands that the NYPD focus on “quality-of-life” offenses: panhandling, public urination, and graffiti, as well as non-criminal offenses like eating, drinking, sleeping, or assembling in public spaces.
This policing strategy forces greater interaction between the NYPD and the public, especially people of color and those affected by the city’s social crises. Immigrants, documented or not, who are arrested for the nonviolent criminal offense of jumping a turnstile to access the city’s sprawling transportation system are automatically fingerprinted, giving federal agents access to their last known address and any other information they can cross reference. Those found guilty of fare-beating have a misdemeanor charge added to their record, raising their risk of deportation.
The de Blasio administration has defended this very practice as recently as March, when amNew York quoted the mayor as stating that “we believe in quality of life policing. We believe it’s one of the reasons this city has gotten safer for a quarter century and . . . we continue to get safer. We’re not changing a formula that works.”
Another example of quality-of-life policing is the racist practice of stop-and-frisk. While de Blasio has significantly scaled back this tactic, the NYPD hasn’t dropped it entirely. According to an NYLCU report, 10,171 New Yorkers were stop-and-frisked from January through September of 2016. Of those, 76 percent (7,758) were completely innocent, 54 percent (5,401) were black, and 29 percent (2,944) were Latino. Only 10 percent (1,042) of those arrested were white.
So why does a self-styled progressive like de Blasio defend this policing strategy? Put simply: New York City’s real estate is the most expensive in the world, and as the theory goes, broken windows lower property values. Before developers can cash in on neighborhoods with low housing prices, the area has to be rid of unwanted residents.
That’s where aggressive policing comes in.
Broken windows tactics are used to ostensibly lower crime rates in communities — through intimidation, imprisonment, or deportation — so that the real estate sector will invest in building commercial centers and luxury homes. De Blasio has confirmed as much.
Praising Bratton’s police work at a major fundraiser in 2014, de Blasio said:
It’s actually incredibly inspiring to see what the work of the NYPD has achieved. . . . Let’s thank them for all they’ve done. I will also note, as a homeowner in Brooklyn, I was struck by the real-estate value map. There’s good news all around tonight.
Notably, the fundraiser was organized by the Police Foundation, the same organization where George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson, originators of the broken windows theory, worked.
Sanctuary From Below
So far this fiscal year, New York State has aided in the deportation of more than two thousand immigrants — many, no doubt, because of broken-windows policing.
Immigrant rights organizations, legal aid firms, and activists are pressing de Blasio to drop the tactic. Even fellow New York City Democrat Rory Lancman has criticized the mayor, and his own police commissioner, James O’Neill, has admitted that broken windows unnecessarily exposes people to police contact and deportations.
De Blasio has largely stayed silent in the face of recent criticism.
When he does decide to defend himself, he’ll likely reiterate what his supporters have already said: that the mayor has done much to change the NYPD’s most egregious practices.
And there’s some truth to the contention. De Blasio has lowered the number of stop-and-frisks. He’s spoken the language of police reform, so much so that he’s earned the ire of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), the NYPD rank and file’s union, and various other law-and-order forces in the city.
But de Blasio, caught between police reformers and the threat of mutiny by the world’s largest police force, has walked a fine line that’s ultimately benefited law enforcement.
When the City Council’s efforts to decriminalize a slew of low-level nonviolent offenses gained traction, infuriating the PBA, De Blasio stepped in to negotiate on the NYPD’s behalf. At the same time the Right-to-Know bill was making its way through the City Council — a bill that mandated cops identify themselves to whomever they stopped, justify their reasons for stopping, and ask for consent before performing a search — de Blasio urged City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to stop the bill from coming to a vote. (A compromise was ultimately struck whereby the NYPD’s patrol guide would be updated and reworded to include aspects of the Right-to-Know bill, but cops would have complete discretion in applying it.)
Given such punitive policies, it’s no wonder many question whether New York can actually protect its immigrant communities. The city’s working class, especially its immigrant members, are placed in situations that risk arrest because of circumstances the city’s business-friendly elites created.
Study after study has shown that programs like Secure Communities and zero-tolerance policing strategies do next to nothing to lower crime rates. De Blasio and the political class are committed to these strategies not because they cut crime but because they serve the interests of business.
At the same time, however, the state’s repressive apparatus is uniting movements and activists fighting for racial and economic justice. Black Lives Matter, the immigrant rights movement, Muslim solidarity activists — all are coalescing into a unified front that could turn the tide of a forty-year, one-sided class war.
They recognize that only by practicing unconditional solidarity can we find common cause. Only by dismantling the false dichotomy between the good and the bad immigrant can we join forces.
And only then will we find true sanctuary in New York City.