For nearly a quarter of a millennium, the United States of America has grown and prospered under the primary operating principle of e pluribus unum, or “out of many, one.” From all our diverse origins, we unite under a common set of beliefs, agree to live under the same laws, and show respect for our institutions of government. It is a system that has allowed us to become an enduring superpower and a beacon of inspiration for other nations.
Today, these noble, time-tested, and highly successful beliefs are under assault. “Sanctuary” laws that shield illegal aliens may have the veneer of compassion, but their implementation is setting the stage for confrontations between federal and local law enforcement officers with conflicting orders. The short-term result could be dead or wounded officers. In a broader context, these laws raise the specter of a constitutional crisis and a breakdown of social order. Sanctuary laws are an existential threat to America and need to end.
The latest example comes from New York, one of the “leaders” in the race to be the most recalcitrant sanctuary state in the republic. There, the State Office of Court Administration recently barred officers from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from arresting removable aliens at state courthouses without a criminal warrant approved by a federal judge.
It is a highly provocative move because ICE has typically been allowed to make courthouse arrests with only an administrative warrant from the agency. The new rule was cynically made in the knowledge that requiring a warrant from a federal judge for every arrest would bog down the process of removing aliens to such a degree as to render it almost completely ineffective. Indeed, in most cases a criminal judicial warrant would not be available at all, since just being in the country illegally is not a crime but a civil administrative matter.
The New York courts’ new rule represents far more than a garden-variety move in a turf battle between two government entities. ICE is a federal agency enforcing federal law. States are supposed to yield to federal law by virtue of the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution. What happens when armed ICE officers show up at a courthouse to take custody of a criminal alien and armed state officers are told to prevent the arrest? The result could be explosive – a modern-day Fort Sumter in the current simmering standoff between the federal government and a new confederacy of states that refuse to honor the Supremacy Clause. That would be a disaster for America on all counts.
Legally, it is not even a close call. There is clear precedent in favor of the federal government on these matters. A good start is In re Neagle, 135 U.S. 1 (1890), wherein the Supreme Court held that the federal government, “While it is limited in the number of its powers, so far as its sovereignty extends, it is supreme. No state government can exclude it from the exercise of any authority conferred upon it by the Constitution, obstruct its authorized officers against its will, or withhold from it for a moment the cognizance of any subject which that instrument has committed to it."
Clearly, states like New York derive their “authority” to defy federal law in this area not from the Constitution, but from an a la carte interpretation of law, whereby states endow themselves with the liberty to enforce or ignore federal laws as they see fit. Their motive is just as clear. In the current political climate, the left sees great electoral power in allowing entry to nearly limitless waves of Third World migrants. Thus, to enforce federal laws enacted by Congress is an act of cruelty, while creating a state of near-anarchy is compassionate.
Sanctuary laws are a gateway to chaos. If such rebellion is allowed to stand, are there any limits at all? By this precedent, the elected leaders in, say, Wyoming, can declare that federal laws pertaining to gun ownership are null and void in the state. High-capacity military weaponry can now be purchased in bulk with no background checks, no waiting periods, no restrictions at all. Without a hint of self-awareness, those who have implemented sanctuary laws in their own jurisdictions would no doubt howl in protest.
The only sane way forward is adherence to the Supremacy Clause. Authority on immigration matters – which are part of foreign policy – must be held by the federal government. Without deference to federal law we are no longer a nation, but a hodge-podge of 50 separate nation-states pulling in different directions. E pluribus unum can still be our motto and operating principle, but it requires concurrence from all our leaders.
Brian Lonergan is director of communications at the Immigration Reform Law Institute, a public interest law firm working to defend the rights and interests of the American people from the negative effects of illegal migration.
Also published at: Brian Lonergan, Sanctuary Laws and the Death of E Pluribus Unum, American Greatness, May 1, 2019.