State and local officials can be a bulwark against the Trump administration’s efforts to undermine human rights. Their potential was on full display during Trump’s first weeks in office.
With immigrants as his prime target, President Trump signed a sweeping executive order temporarily suspending refugee admissions, indefinitely banning refugee admissions from Syria, and imposing severe restrictions for 90-days on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. Earlier, he issued an order to begin construction on a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico and ramp up immigration enforcement within the United States. For those “sanctuary jurisdictions” that resist this crack down on their residents by limiting cooperation with federal authorities on immigration enforcement, Trump ordered withholding of federal funding, thus carrying out a promise made on the campaign trail.
In the midst of these assaults on human rights, we’ve seen massive nation-wide organizing and public protests, remarkable collaboration to develop swift legal challenges, and courageous resistance and dissent from within the federal government. State and local officials from many jurisdictions are stepping in and stepping up, as well, vowing to protect local communities.
State and local efforts to protect human rights, particularly in the context of immigration, are not new. In recent years, sanctuary jurisdictions have emerged as a response to the over-enforcement of draconian federal immigration restrictions which separate families and disrupt lives and livelihoods. New York, Seattle, Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. are among the 39 cities that have declared that they will not share information with federal authorities on immigration status or turn their citizens over to federal immigration authorities for minor infractions. Four states (California, Connecticut, Vermont, and Rhode Island) and hundreds of counties make up the ranks, as well. Jurisdictions take wide ranging and differing approaches to their sanctuary policies. What they share, however, is a principled commitment to keeping immigrant communities safe and to ensuring equal treatment of individuals.
In this new era, the stakes are increasingly high. Indeed, in the wake of the executive order threatening loss of funding, some sanctuary jurisdictions are rethinking their approach. Miami-Dade’s mayor ordered county jails to comply with federal immigration detention requests, citing the over 300 million dollars of federal funding at stake.
But others are standing firm. New York Mayor Bill De Blasio vowed to prioritize city policies that foster positive ties between law enforcement and immigrant communities. And he suggested that the City would sue the federal government if it withholds funding pursuant to the new executive order. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said that Boston would not be intimidated by threatened federal cuts. New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman issued a guidance for local authorities on how to limit participation in immigration enforcement, and suggested model sanctuary provisions. California’s Governor Jerry Brown, too, has spoken out strongly about his state’s commitment to “defend everybody – every man, woman and child – who has come here for a better life and has contributed to the well-being of our state." San Francisco filed a suit challenging the executive order on January 31st.
Other examples of state and local resistance to the Trump agenda have emerged. In response to the January 27th executive order halting refugee admissions and imposing a 90-day ban on entry of immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, sixteen state Attorneys General issued a joint statement condemning the order as "unconstitutional, un-American and unlawful," and vowing to challenge the order in court. As of this writing, the Governor and Attorney General of Washington announced plans to file broad-based litigation seeking to invalidate the order, and the Attorney General of Massachusetts announced the intention to join in litigation brought by the ACLU.
The emergence of vocal state and local leaders, speaking out for foundational human rights principles of equality and non-discrimination, regardless of citizenship status, illustrates the critical role that state and local governments play in safeguarding human rights, particularly where the federal government fails to do so. Notably, a number of sanctuary jurisdictions have also made express commitments to promote and protect human rights. Boston and Seattle are among the eleven self-proclaimed “Human Rights Cities” in the United States – a number that continues to grow. Los Angeles and San Francisco have enacted ordinances based explicitly on international human rights treaties. Chicago has likewise committed to address domestic violence and children’s rights as human rights issues. Add to these examples innovative efforts by mayors, legislatures, and state and local agencies across the United States to incorporate human rights into local law and policy.
As these actions by mayors, governors, and Attorneys Generals illustrate, human rights do, indeed, begin in small places, close to home. And state and local officials will have an increasingly vital role to play in ensuring that the United States protects and respects human rights in the age of Trump.
[A version of this piece also appears on the Human Rights at Home Blog]