A nine-point margin of victory on Tuesday night for Ralph Northam, the Democratic candidate for Virginia governor, appears to have vanquished the doubts that clung to his campaign in the days before the election. That his victory speech was interrupted by three protesters with signs that read, “Sanctuary for all,” a reference to the governor-elect’s waffling on a state-wide pre-emption law for so-called sanctuary cities—jurisdictions in some way uncooperative with federal immigration police—will be an afterthought. To the extent anyone remembers the sanctuary city issue in the Virginia gubernatorial election, they’ll remember it for the fear-mongering advertisements of Northam’s opponent, Ed Gillespie, that drew condemnation from Republicans and Democrats as prominent as President Obama. But the Democrat’s handling of the sanctuary issue ought to be a warning, too, that the party has yet to find the language they will use to defend a policy that has simultaneously become both a liberal bona fide and a right-wing dog whistle.
Here’s the backstory. In February, as lieutenant governor, Northam cast a tie-breaking vote against a pre-emption measure to ban sanctuary cities in Virginia. Accused by his opponent of voting to enshrine sanctuary cities and, by extension, let MS-13 gang members run wild in the DC suburbs, Northam seemed incapable of defending his decision, except to say (correctly) that the whole thing had been a stunt, since Virginia has no sanctuary cities and the veto of Gov. Terry McAuliffe, also a Democrat, was certain. Then Northam said he had always been against sanctuary cities. Finally he said that, as governor, he would sign the very bill he had voted down.
That sanctuary cities became an issue at all in Virginia tells you something about the insidious conflation of national and local issues in American politics. This problem predates Trump, though it has been exacerbated by his monopoly on our attention. Local races that should be about land use and bond issues are now suffused with talk of, say, immigration or… Trump. Local candidates are elected according to voters’ national party preferences, in what the law professor David Schleicher calls “second-order elections.” Slate’s Jeremy Stahl has explained how sanctuary cities, in particular, grew from a niche dispute between localities and the Department of Homeland Security into a widening front of the culture war.
Politicians confronting the issue in 2018 should take a look at Texas, where Democrats across the state rallied this spring and summer against an anti-sanctuary bill called SB 4. True, SB 4 is a broader policing directive that, among other things, allows local police to turn run-of-the-mill detentions into immigration law inquiries. True too that the opposition in Texas ultimately failed; the bill passed and is being disputed in court. Still, the debate and passage of SB 4 was a moment of exuberant, unabashed protest for Democrats in Texas—a far cry from the retreat Ralph Northam made under fire.
Here’s what opponents of SB 4 did in Texas. First, they embraced the religious righteousness of humane immigration policy. “I have a strong belief that we should welcome strangers, that we are all God’s children,” State Sen. Sylvia Garcia, who represents Houston, said to begin her questioning. Religious groups filed court briefs against the bill, and spoke up to attack it. “SB 4 is contrary to the moral imperative that we love our neighbor, welcome the immigrant and care for the most vulnerable among us,” the episcopal bishop C. Andrew Doyle said in July. In a statement opposing the law, the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops wrote, “S.B. 4 neglects Christ’s call to welcome the stranger and undermines our nation’s heritage to offer the light of freedom to the oppressed.”
It’s part of a larger trend in which religious leaders—and in Texas, Catholics in particular—have become the most compelling defenders of immigrants’ rights. This summer, the Catholic bishop of El Paso, Mark J. Seitz, criticized Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton for threatening to sue the federal government over DACA. “When I hear this legalistic insistence upon every letter of our broken immigration law being carried out to this cruel degree, I can hear Jesus’ indignant response: ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites,’” Seitz wrote. It’s more effective than invoking the economic benefits of migration, more specific than calling on America’s moral-historical obligation, and much more effective than, as Matt Yglesias sardonically labeled the Democratic strategy du jour, “shouting ‘yo that’s racist’ at racist fliers.”
Second, the anti-SB 4 coalition invoked the Constitution. One of the most fundamental issues with the immigration detainers that so-called “sanctuary” jurisdictions decline to enforce is that they sometimes require local jails to hold suspected immigration law violators indefinitely without a warrant. That has left some municipalities exposed to Fourth Amendment lawsuits for holding American citizens without charges. Garcia, questioning the sponsor of SB4, asked: “Has it ever occurred to you that these law enforcement officials are upholding the rule of law according to the Constitution, which trumps all other laws?” One reason a U.S. district judge blocked parts of SB 4 in August? He thought the bill would “inevitably lead to Fourth Amendment violations.”
Third, the anti-SB 4 coalition included law enforcement officials defending the discretion of local policing practices. Police chiefs from Dallas, Houston, Austin, Arlington, Fort Worth, and San Antonio, joined by the director of the Texas Police Chiefs Association, wrote an op-ed saying the policy would make police officers’ jobs more difficult. This bill, they said, “will lead to distrust of police and less cooperation from members of the community. And it will foster the belief that people cannot seek assistance from police for fear of being subjected to an immigration status investigation.” Sheriffs representing Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and El Paso published their own letter. “We cannot drive crime victims and witnesses into the shadows without undermining local public safety,” they wrote.
There you have the three-part playbook for a political defense of sanctuary cities, brought to you by the state of Texas: God, the Constitution, and the police.