making local government more ethical

The Ethics of Local Government Involvement in Immigration Matters

Immigration is a new issue for municipalities. Or is it?

Last week, a federal judge struck down ordinances passed in Hazleton, PA that would harshly punish undocumented immigrants who tried to live or work there, as well as employers and landlords who provided them homes or jobs. Also last week, New Haven, CT began to hand ID cards out to all citizens, but with the intention of helping undocumented immigrants. The federal government's response to the New Haven ordinance was a raid on the homes of several undocumented immigrants in that city (immigration authorities deny that the raids were related to the new ordinance).

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A new book, Jean Pfaelzer's Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans, makes it clear that this sort of municipal interference in immigration matters is nothing new. In 1885, a mob forcibly drove Chinese immigrants out of Tacoma, WA, led by the mayor, the chief of police, two council members, and a probate court judge. They then looted and burned the immigrants' homes. That time, too, federal authorities became involved, prosecuting the mob leaders, but the municipal leaders' lawyers successfully argued in court that noncitizens have no constitutional rights.

In Eureka, CA that same year, a committee set a deadline for the Chinese residents to leave town, and then a mob rounded up all who failed to comply, sending them away and burning their homes. The mayor, the police chief, and the newspapers helped out. The Chinese residents sued for reparations, but lost, and the county attracted settlers by advertising itself as Chinese-free. Other municipalities followed suit.

Two basic ethical issues arise when immigration issues come up in a local government context. One is that immigration is a federal matter. Municipal authorities are not supposed to undermine federal law. Hazleton tried to punish immigrants, employers, and landlords in a way the federal immigration laws do not. New Haven's ID card does not appear to break or undermine any federal laws, although it makes life easier for undocumented immigrants.

Are local governments required to uphold federal immigration laws, including reporting on or arresting residents who are otherwise following state and municipal laws? This is an issue that many municipalities are struggling with right now, and it could be more of a problem if the federal authorities decide to really go after undocumented immigrants.

The second basic ethical issue involves the public interest. Even when they are not yet citizens, immigrants are members of the community. They live, work, and worship in the community, and their children go to school in the community. Officials must determine whether it is in the public interest to make life difficult for certain members of the community, despite their contributions to the community.

Of course, there's also the question of discrimination. Governments should be the last institutions to practice discrimination, since the Constitution clearly makes it illegal for them to do so. In addition, local government leaders have a responsibility to be ethical leaders, to prevent citizens from discriminating rather than leading them, or in the case of Hazleton forcing them, to discriminate.