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Philadelphia Inquirer News: Ferris: Is sanctuary movement civil disobedience or just law-breaking?

February 23, 2017 04:31 PM
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Ferris: Is sanctuary movement civil disobedience or just law-breaking?

Updated: FEBRUARY 23, 2017 — 4:31 PM EST

by Kevin Ferris

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A recent comment by Mayor Kenney's spokeswoman sums up the commitment and compassion behind the sanctuary movement.

Lauren Hitt was responding to concerns raised by Council President Darrell L. Clarke about Philadelphia losing state or federal money because of the city's sanctuary policy. In a Feb. 2 story by my colleague Tricia L. Nadolny, Hitt noted that Council, including Clarke, had commended Kenney for the policy as recently as September.

"We cannot waver on that belief now just because things are more difficult," Hitt said. "An attack on one Philadelphian is an attack on all of us. We must stand together in the face of hate."

There are echoes here of the famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He was responding to criticism of demonstrations and other acts of civil disobedience aimed at overthrowing segregationist laws in that Alabama city and across the South.

"I am in Birmingham because injustice is here," he declared. "I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."

From that, it's tempting to suggest that sanctuary advocates are following in the footsteps of the civil rights movement, that they are the new generation of civil disobedients. Except for one crucial distinction.

Those committing nonviolent civil disobedience in other eras targeted what they believed to be unjust laws by personally breaking them - deliberately, thoughtfully, even prayerfully - and then willingly accepting the consequences, however much the penalty compounded the injustice. In fact, the punishment was part of the strategy to seize the moral high ground and win people over to a cause.

Here's King from the same "Letter": "In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law."

Note King was writing "from a Birmingham Jail." Not about what others experienced at his urging or direction. He opposed the segregationists' policies, but he believed enough in their humanity to think he could reach them through his act of conscience. They were in opposition, but were not an enemy to be conquered. They were fellow Americans to be won over.

The civil and women's rights activist Barbara Deming reflected on this notion in her own diaries from jail, later published as Prisons That Could Not Hold. "Nonviolent action is a dramatic technique," she wrote. "[We] try to involve our antagonists as actors in the play, to make it that much more real to them, and hoping to catch if not their consciences - sometimes very elusive - at least that sense in them of what will help or hurt their 'image,' a practical matter. Or we might possibly catch the consciences of others in the community, without whose acquiescence they cannot behave as they do."

Importantly, here's what King, Deming, and many others did not do: Make others pay for their crimes. But, for all its good intentions, that is exactly what the sanctuary movement does.

Here's one way: By refusing to cooperate with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Philadelphia winds up releasing convicted foreign felons into the community. And sometimes those individuals commit other crimes. In one case, a Honduran who had been deported in 2009 was arrested in Philadelphia six years later on domesticated aggravated assault. The city released him, despite a request from ICE to do otherwise. That man has since been charged with raping a child.

The sanctuary movement is rightly concerned about the victims of immigration laws that are sadly out of touch with their impact on individuals, families, and communities. Yet advocates seem unconcerned about the victims they create by ignoring the laws.

Here's another way: President Trump is threatening to cut federal funding from "sanctuary jurisdictions." The nonprofit Open the Books estimates that there are 106 sanctuary cities in the country that received nearly $27 billion from the federal government in 2016, with $600 million going to Philadelphia alone. Cuts to public safety or social services would punish all Philadelphians, not just the politicians or activists who support the sanctuary movement. New Jersey Senate Democrats have proposed countering Trump by putting Garden State taxpayers on the hook for any federal funding cut from sanctuary cities. Jersey municipalities are expected to receive $15.7 billion from the federal government this year.

Where is the moral authority in breaking a law and then making others pay for your actions? Many Americans decried Trump's executive order on immigration, declaring it unlawful or unconstitutional. If it proves to be, what if he declares himself above the law and proceeds anyway, regardless of the consequences or the victims created - just as the sanctuary movement is doing?

Those who are elected to faithfully execute the laws should do that - not pick and choose which ones to obey, harming constituents in the process.

As King wrote, "I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends."

Kevin Ferris is the Inquirer commentary editor. kf@phillynews.com @ferrisk3

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