Since we learned that Donald Trump is our president-elect, I have repeatedly experienced déjà vu. The communities in which I live and work still feel the chilling effects of policies implemented after 9/11. I served as New York City’s Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs in the months immediately following September 11, under newly elected Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Reflecting on that period as we enter a Trump presidency, as a former local policy-maker and a current movement builder, I’m remembering what we did well—and what we got wrong.
If we are to engage in a strong civil-resistance movement, one consistent with the America millions of us believe in, then we must absorb the lessons of that era. Among the most urgent of them is that local and state leadership can make a real difference.
After September 11, under the leadership of Mayor Bloomberg, New York City resisted succumbing to demagoguery by issuing executive order 41, effectively establishing a “sanctuary” city. While there is no legal definition of sanctuary cities, they generally prevent local law enforcement from cooperating with immigration authorities. Since the election, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles have stood by their sanctuary policies. This stance is critical. Local law enforcement, trusted community leaders, and elected officials must form a front line of defense so that we are not afraid for ourselves, our friends, or our immigrant family members.
Local elected officials can also encourage the Obama administration to dismantle the special-registry program, which was created by the Bush administration in 2002 and remains in place. The National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) required that noncitizen young men—anyone over the age of 16—from 25 countries, including North Korean and Syria, register with federal immigration officials. This program applied to all noncitizens, including those who entered the United States legally. Although all 25 countries have been removed from NSEERS, the system itself still exists, making it relatively easy for the Trump administration to bring the program back to life with a new list of countries. President Obama could end NSEERS before leaving office, which would prolong the process for reviving it. We would then have more time to resist and organize against it.
Citing local rule, elected officials could explore ways to create exemptions for their residents or secure data for residents who may have signed up for municipal identifications locally. If we don’t stand up now, then we will have to straddle a fine line later between respect for a “law” and concern for its implication, as we did after NSEERS was established in 2002. And “we” now includes many more local and state government officials than it did in 2002. There are four state offices of immigrant affairs, and 28 cities with similar offices. Unlike in 2002, city councils and state legislatures have more leaders whose experiences as immigrants or children of immigrants inform their perspectives on policy issues. Their voices can create a multiplier effect and help influence public opinion about the damaging effects of singling out any group of Americans.