The sanctuary cities debate is about to get crazier

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When I saw the news, the first thing that came to mind was: Oh, great. Here come the raging maniacs who know nothing about sanctuary cities but nonetheless demand that President Trump do something about them.

Over the weekend, a Bridgeport man allegedly stabbed his wife to death before kidnapping their 6-year-old daughter. The killing triggered a huge manhunt across the east coast. Oscar Hernandez, a native of El Salvador, was quickly apprehended in Pennsylvania. His daughter, Aylin Sofia, is now safe.

In another time, this would be a run-of-the-mill crime story. Bad guy does bad thing. Good guys catch bad guy. Justice prevails. But because Hernandez is Hispanic, because he was deported in 2013, because he allegedly murdered and kidnapped in a city that’s considering sanctuary status, this story is now cast as an issue: What should we do about sanctuary cities?

The answer is nothing.

Serious crime and sanctuary cities are unrelated.

It is not a serious crime to arrive in the United States without proper authorization. Illegal entry, as it’s called, is a misdemeanor. It does not rise, for the first offense, to a felony, like kidnapping. It certainly does not rise to murder. A misdemeanor is a minor crime, similar to driving without insurance, and is usually punishable by a fine. In the case of immigrants, that punishment usually involves deportation.*

All of this is nuanced. But nuance is the enemy of propaganda. For the anti-immigrant voices currently in ascendance, it’s best to skip nuance and focus on “crime.” For them, “sanctuary city” means protecting criminals.

They don’t know what they are talking about.

Not all crime is created equal, but the anti-immigrant voices in this country would have you believing it is . They have labored mightily to link illegal entry to the worst crime you can imagine. They hope to tie the worst crime you can imagine to the government’s crack-down on unauthorized immigration. That connection was made explicit last night during President Trump’s first address before a joint session on the U.S. Congress. In the audience were families of victims killed by undocumented immigrants.

“Sanctuary city” means one thing. It means local cops are not required to work with federal authorities on routine issues. Specifically, this might take the form of policy barring cops from asking for immigration status of detainees. Or it might mean cops refuse to relay that information to federal authorities unless they are asked for it. In essence, it means immigration is for the feds to worry about. Local time and local money is spent locally.

Murder, however, is another matter. So is kidnapping.

Even if Bridgeport were a sanctuary city, sanctuary status would not have protected Oscar Hernandez. No city on God’s green earth would refuse to cooperate in the search for a man who killed his wife before abducting their 6-year-old child. Only a city ruled by the clinically insane would do that. But given the hysteria whipped up by anti-immigrant voices, it sounds plausible even to reasonable people that a sanctuary city would protect a murderer.

The debate is so crazy it drives to distraction people who do know what they are talking about. When the White House accused Connecticut of turning a blind eye to the dangers of illegal immigration, Gov. Dannel Malloy rightly fired back: “This is the gang that can’t shoot straight. They don’t understand the Constitution. They don’t understand the separation of powers, the 10th Amendment. They’re going give me advice? Give me a break.”

If we lived in a saner world, the case of Oscar Hernandez would be seen as an slam-dunk argument against the anti-immigrant line. The White House believes aggressive deportation policies will make our country safer. They won’t. Hernandez was deported. He returned. And now his wife is dead.

No wall is going to stop a man determined to come back. Armies of deportation deputies aren’t going to make us safer.

But local cops will.

Local cops caught the bad guy, saved the girl, and now justice will prevail. If this debate were really about safety, we’d put the focus where it should be.

John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale and a New Haven resident.

*This column was corrected to properly state the relative severity of the crime of entering the United States illegally. 

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