Trump’s talent for alarmingly erratic policy positions did not disappoint Tuesday during his first formal Congressional address. At a White House meeting just hours before the speech, the president vacillated about one of his most fervently defended issues: immigration. He alluded to creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people, but then reinforced his crackdown agenda during the speech, describing the threat of “lawless chaos.” It appears the same incoherency afflicts local governments. New York City is officially a Sanctuary City, but what that means, and how it will actually play out during Trump’s tenure, remains unclear.
Tonight, the Tenement Museum will host a discussion with City Council member Melissa Mark-Viverito, a longtime immigrants rights spokesperson, and Nisha Agarwal, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. The event aims to answer some of those questions.
Despite the city’s sanctuary status, ICE officials detained at least 40 people in New York during the second week in February, a sign that the city is not immune to nationwide, punitive muscle flexing. On Feb. 21, the Department of Homeland Security issued its immigration memos, confirming a strong departure from the Obama administration’s strategy. Significantly, immigration officers have more latitude to arrest and deport people under broader definitions of “criminality.”
How local law enforcement chooses to cooperate with ICE will determine the relevancy of cities’ “santuary status.” Trump has sought the collaboration of police units to identify people subject to deportation. In New York City, where stop-and-frisk and broken-windows policing manage crime by targeting people and communities based on their suspected risk, law enforcement may fulfill Trump’s immigration agenda without explicitly endorsing it. A New York Times op-ed from Feb. 15 argues that for New York to effectively honor immigrants’ protections, it must reform quota-based police practices, which round up people for minor offenses.
The forces that drive these arrests may share common motives. Immigration enforcement, like criminal justice, often conceals nefarious profit arrangments. Almost two thirds of apprehended immigrants are held in private detention centers, many of which are also run by the CCA, or Corrections Corporation of America.
For its part, the NYPD rejected the president’s deportation orders, but even that stance may be less equivocal than advertised. New York magazine reported that several senior New York police officials voiced their intention to oblige the president’s deportation wishes. This inconsistency echoes the dissonance between federal demands and local law enforcement’s interpretation of it.
Despite ambiguity at an institutional level, the people of New York have made clear their stance to defend immigrants. Organizers are developing a strategy to define “sanctuary sites,” where undocumented people can seek refuge to avoid home raids and potential deportation. Many employers have also shown their support. Over 20 restaurants shut their doors during the national Day Without Immigrants strike on Feb. 16 to support their staff.
“I’d rather be on the right side of this than on the wrong side of this,” the owner of one of those establishments told me. “I had no idea whether anybody would care.” Ethan Smith runs Hecho en Dumbo, a posh taco joint in the East Village that he says is Mexican owned and Mexican operated. “I felt like undocumented people really needed a show of support,” he said.
While many restaurants shared his decision to close, Smith described an unspoken inconsistency at play in how New Yorkers are rallying behind the immigrant cause. The ban of travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries elicited mass demonstrations that were tens of thousands of people strong, but deportation orders have garnered a more tepid response. From Smith’s perspective, New Yorkers still suffer from a stigmatized perception about which immigrants merit solidarity. “Legal” versus “Illegal” may influence not only legislative responses, but public ones too.
With so much uncertainty about immigration— from executive inconsistency to individual ambivalence— it’s hard to know how Trump’s purported plans will unfold, nor who will really challenge them. Hopefully Viverito and Avarwal, speaking at the Tenement Museum, will shed light on what might lie ahead. New York, as a sanctuary city, deserves to know.
The talk will be recorded and archived on the Tenement Museum’s YouTube page— we’ll embed it here once it’s live.