How New Orleans’ Mayor Balances Welcoming Immigrants with Following Federal Policies

by Esther Yu Hsi Lee –

‘If Congress would do its job and actually have comprehensive immigration reform, we wouldn’t have to have these patchwork guesses on who’s doing what.’

What are mayors to do with their immigrant constituents when they want to strike a balance being both a welcoming city to everyone and a city of law and order pressured to follow federal policies as harsh as the ones that President Donald Trump has put forth in his executive orders on immigration?

That’s the burning question for New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu — the incoming president of the United States Conference of Mayors — who met with Attorney General Jeff Sessions in April with other U.S. mayors to discuss policies aimed at protecting undocumented immigrants.

The meeting came in response after the Trump administration publicly shamed New Orleans and eight other jurisdictions for being “sanctuary cities” to undocumented residents, allowing officials the ability to ignore a federal request to detain some immigrants beyond the length of their prison sentence for potential deportation proceedings. Speaking with Sessions in that private session, Landrieu said his city has complied with federal immigration law. But he also emphasized that it violates an immigrant’s constitutional rights to be held “without probable cause or without a warrant” for longer than his or her prison term.

In an interview with reporters after speaking at the Center for American Progress’ Race in America: A Conversation with Mayor Landrieu, the New Orleans mayor covered a few wide-ranging topics such as the removal of Confederate statues in his city and racial issues including the “insidiousness” of people who believe African Americans can’t have the same level of humanity as other people “because you have black blood.”

On the topic of immigration, Landrieu was emphatic about the need for comprehensive immigration reform so that mayors like himself wouldn’t need to have “big fights right now about whether localities comply with federal policies.”

“I would make the simple point that if Congress would do its job and actually have comprehensive immigration reform, we wouldn’t have to have these patchwork guesses on who’s doing what, who’s not doing what, what’s a sanctuary city, what’s not, what all of that looks like,” Landrieu told ThinkProgress.

Currently, the Trump administration has named and shamed many localities for ignoring federal requests to turn over all suspected undocumented immigrants under custodial arrest. But such an undertaking, particularly authorizing local police to take on federal immigration enforcement policies, could actually make these cities less safe for immigrants. A 2012 study found that trust in police fell among community members when law enforcement authorities were involved in immigration enforcement.

It’s easy to see why immigrants wouldn’t place their trust in law enforcement. Under Trump, immigrants who report crimes against their abusers, reach out to the police after being hit by trucks, and come into everyday exchanges with transit police have found themselves become caught up in the deportation dragnet.

As the incoming president of United States Conference of Mayors, Landrieu will likely have some power over how cities could implement federal immigration policies.

“In the midst of this, we’ve left local officials to try and figure out a pathway that works and always wondering whether or not we’re within bounds of the Constitution and what’s not,” Landrieu said.

The mayor pointed out that both Democratic and Republican mayors have some common ground in “what immigration reform looks like” including: having a secure border; that undocumented immigrants brought as children “should be left alone”; that mass deportation of millions of immigrants is impossible; and that immigrants who conduct violent, criminal behavior should be arrested and deported.

“In the world I live in as a legislator, once you have those broad parameters, it seems almost nonsensical that you can’t get to some resolution sooner rather than later,” Landrieu said. “If they do that, you wouldn’t have these hodgepodge attempts on the local level to do or not to do certain things whether you’re in a blue city or a red city or in a blue state or red state.”

Landrieu pushed back against the idea New Orleans was violating the law when it comes to protecting its immigrant residents. That’s because the definition of a “sanctuary city” has been too vague since the phrase means different things to many people.

“And the law, in order for you to be able to prosecute someone constitutionally from criminal law to civil law, the law’s got to be clear, it can’t be vague,” Landrieu pointed out. “If the Attorney General [Sessions] and Congress want to go back and redraft something that makes sense, we’ll be happy to work with them so we can follow the law.”

“That doesn’t mean we’ll be a closed city,” Landrieu added. “New Orleans is an open and welcoming city. But as I’ve said my friends in the advocacy community, when the law is written we will follow the law, whatever it is… And we will follow whatever is constitutional, and whatever the law requires us to do while we fight for what we think is right.”


Reprinted with permission from Think Progress