What the Devil won't tell you
MLK & impatience: Dubious sanctuary initiative seeks to create necessary 'tension'
When Zaira Livier was a little girl in Tucson, she was undocumented, playing in the desert and time got away from her.
Her aunt was terrified because she didn’t know what had happened to her and she couldn’t call the cops. She didn’t want to get her niece deported.
Now, Livier is 33, a U.S. citizen and an activist full of rocket fuel and she’s about to make life hard on Tucson's Democratic political establishment.
She is leading a group of seriously True Progressives in a petition drive to put on the November ballot an initiative meant to stand up to Trumpism by defying – to every inch legally possible they hope – Arizona's SB 1070.
Her own memory and a whole bunch of others’ stories of a similar nature have inspired Tucson Families Free and Together to start this push.
The plan seems like it's counterproductive, ill-conceived, total folly, legally doomed and exactly the sort thing that makes the wheels turn toward change. The details leave me wanting. The subversion represents a precious impatience.
“We aren’t being bullied anymore,” Livier said. “We are just a bunch of people with nothing to lose. We are not going to sell ourselves out for fear-based politics.”
Oh, that's exactly what fear-based politicians love to hear from their base.
Fear is what they are going to be doling out to Democrats on the November ballot. They are going to want the support of a base that is so sick of Donald Trump’s attacks on the Latino community they want to hit back in a substantive way. The fear will be that this measure will turn out 8,000 percent of the East-Side vote in a howling “no.”
The group decided to own the term “sanctuary,” like the Colonial Army owned “Yankee Doodle” and the 1950s Dodgers owned the modifier “Dem Bums from Brooklyn.” So supporting the initiative is, in effect, supporting sanctuary cities. Sanctuary cities had been something of a made-up verbal attack on municipalities that tell police forces to put enforcing criminal laws ahead of U.S. immigration statutes.
In that regard, the ballot measure would hamstring cops, and categorically so.
Related: City atty: 'Sanctuary city' initiative may violate SB1070
The initiative campaign had its christening party this past weekend and three days later City Attorney Mike Rankin threw a legal hissyfit over the potential harm that could come Tucson’s way as a result.
The proposed ordinance has a bunch of provisions, but the gist of it is that its drafters want to surround SB 1070 with as many obstacles as is legally possible.
If it passes and is found to have gone beyond what is legally possible, it would threaten state funding for the city, as well as undo local cooperation with federal law enforcement on a whole bunch of fronts and could very well be struck down by the courts, Rankin’s memo argued. Voter-approved measures can't be dialed back by the Council, making that exposure doubly alarming.
So yours truly is highly dubious to say the least (and when have I ever done said the least?) on the merits. Also, I worry that owning the derision won’t advance the cause. We know that anyone who supports Medicare for All will be dismissed as wanting to turn the country into Venezuela. That doesn’t mean progressives should run on Chavezcare.
This initiative won’t create an actual sanctuary city because U.S. Customs and Border Protection will still be out there doing their thing along with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the rest of the alphabet soup of federal agencies.
Finally, my initial fear was that opposing "sanctuary," a term written into the initiative's language, would be equated to some form of white privilege or racism. That concern was greatly unwound by talking to Livier for an hour. She was thoughtful, patient and smart, with me at least, and yet wonderfully impatient.
Birmingham to Tucson, come in Tucson ...
Truth is, my mood about this initiative had softened prior to what it was when I started thinking about how the measure taps the age-old question: When confronted with injustice, at what point is strategic patience another term for surrender?
And for that, there is just one authority: Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
The whole country is waiting on national leaders to fix our immigration system, but part of the country wants a wall and zero tolerance and another part wants a solution to include a path to citizenship for undocumented migrants.
On the issue of patience, King's letter is as good a governing authority as any. He was answering clergy who were telling him to go slow and be more patient.
Nope. King wanted to sow tension. And brothers and sisters, will this initiative ever do that.
"Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood."
King had two tests for whether a law was unjust.
"A just law is a man made [sic] code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law."
That’s basic sin vs. not sin and just take a breath, atheists, it’s the construct a Baptist preacher left me with so don't go talking Genesis and brontosauruses.
Is the U.S. immigration system sinful? Yes, and it’s the one thing both sides agree on. That’s why the right wants to change the system to make sure no one gets in and the left wants to change it so it better reflects reality.
We live in homes built by illegal immigrants. We don’t want them condemned because that work shouldn’t have been done. We eat food picked by illegal immigrants, we don’t want to shut Tucson off from that produce because we think it should have rotted and fallen to the ground. Illegal immigrants, in some cases, care for our kids. We don’t deprive those kids of diplomas or success in life because their development was illegally aided.
We want the fruits of illegal labor and to reserve the right to condemn the people who illegally provided it. We want to condemn the sinner but cash in on the sin. I don’t think any religion other than Trumpism preaches having both.
Failing the second test
Then there’s the second test.
An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself.
That’s where the argument fails the MLK test. If we think it’s OK for other countries to have immigration laws that are enforced, it’s not unjust for the U.S. to have one of its own.
Here’s what I mean: Readers of this column might remember my mother was in the hospital during the whole Obamacare repeal debate. That same mom – 30 years previous – was deported from the Bahamas. Was that unjust? She wasn’t there legally. She was selling timeshares, which might be unjust, without a visa.
See, with all my white privilege, I have a family member who was deported by a racial majority when she was a racial minority.
Turnip truck treadmarks
Now, Livier pointed out over and over that this initiative will not affect U.S. immigration enforcement or undo SB 1070. On the other hand, that wasn’t a turnip truck I fell off following being born a day before. They do want to get undermine U.S. immigration law. The addition to Tucson's city code would severely limit TPD's ability to bring up immigration status with suspects.
I don’t think that’s a city’s job. On the other hand, I also didn’t fall off a turnip truck in 2010, when the Arizona Legislature passed the bill to empower more harassment of the Latino community. Proponents can swear up and down they aren’t racially profiling but c’mon. Who are they looking for and among what color of faces?
That community, Livier said, has been harassed and has been over-policed as a result. So forgive her (or don’t) if she and her group are inconveniencing politicians.
“We are being told we are going to cause havoc; well, havoc is already caused,” she said.
Please hold for the next available revolution
The reason the MAGAs haven’t completely taken over the country is that the U.S. system of republican democracy is designed to put the brakes on change to protect the country from despotic rule.
Democracy takes patience. The labor movement struggled for decades to have its rights recognized. Civil rights action took nearly 100 years to eliminate slavery and another 100 to put an end to Jim Crow. The right doesn’t have it any better. It took the Reagan Revolution 38 years to get a hold of the U.S. Supreme Court. True believers like David Stockman and Ed Rollins were convinced by the end of the Gipper’s term in office that the revolution had failed. Yet today, we live under its full flower.
Liberal activists like Livier and Joel Feinman could absolutely have a six-hour commiseration with Tea Party leaders Trent Humphries and Ralph Kayser about what it’s like to feel used and abused by the party establishment. Party establishments prefer victories with no stakes.
Still, coalitions are needed. The biggest mistake President 45 has made is in subtracting from his base rather than adding to it. The biggest mistake Tucson Families Free and Together can make is repeating what they did on Facebook the other day, white-shaming a progressive ally who's a bit dubious about the proposition. That can’t be the strategy and Livier says it’s not.
And again, how the campaign is approaching things on social media aside, she couldn’t have been cooler talking on the phone to this particular dubious white guy.
Livier explained the exchange as a reaction against lives being reduced to strategy, which is kind of what I’m doing now.
“We want to bring this down to bread and butter. We want people to ask questions and we’re not going to bite people’s heads off,” she said. “We are just a bunch of activists trying to do the right thing.”
The ultimate goal is to provide clear legal status for illegal immigrants here now. That will require knocking Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to minority status and sweeping Trump out of office. So what’s fighting city hall got to do with that? King was fighting city hall when he got arrested and wrote a letter.
It’s not at all clear that the sanctuary city initiative will pass, and if it does, if it will withstand a legal challenge. It’s not at all clear it’s good policy. It’s a very safe bet that it will make the right angry and turn out at the polls, which will make the city’s establishment nervous as hell. It’s yet to be settled whether the push will make a lot of white folks uncomfortable, or if it'll prompt the sort of increased voter turnout among Tucson's Latino working class that proponents say it will.
I can tell you this much: Without people like Livier and her fellow travelers forcing us to confront these sort of questions, change never happens at all.
Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is a former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things the Devil won’t.