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At the CNN/YouTube debate Wednesday night, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani argued about "sanctuary cities," with each candidate alleging that his rival was soft on illegal immigration.
Romney cited a New York City policy that told city workers not to ask people's immigration status and this comment that Giuliani made at a 1994 news conference: "If you come here and you work hard and you happen to be in an undocumented status, you're one of the people who we want in this city. You're somebody that we want to protect, and we want you to get out from under what is often a life of being like a fugitive, which is really unfair."
Romney said that shows the former mayor was too welcoming to illegal immigrants.
"They didn't report everybody they found that was here illegally," Romney said in the debate, held in St. Petersburg. "And this happens to be a difference between Mayor Giuliani and myself and probably others on this stage as well." Romney cited Giuliani's quote about welcoming illegal immigrants and said, "That's the wrong attitude. Instead, we should say if you're here illegally, you should not be here. We're not going to give you benefits, other than those required by the law, like health care and education, and that's the course we're going to have to pursue."
Romney is referring to a policy in New York and many other cities that directs municipal workers not to tell federal authorities about someone who might be an illegal immigrant unless the person is suspected of a crime or the federal government specifically requires such a report.
The policy, which began in 1989 under Mayor Ed Koch and was continued by Giuliani, is still in effect. It is based on the belief that undocumented immigrants are reluctant to report crimes, fires and seek medical care for fear of being deported. The idea is that they will be more likely to do so if they are reassured that city workers won't report them to the feds. Supporters of these plans say the entire community benefits because crimes get reported and diseases like meningitis can be treated before they spread.
"It's just good management and dealing with reality," said Angela Kelley, director of the Immigration Policy Center, a research group affiliated with the American Immigration Lawyers Association. President Bush had a similar moderate approach on the issue when he was governor of Texas, opposing efforts to deny services to illegal immigrants.
Immigration enforcement is primarily a federal obligation, and local police haven't played much of a role unless they have found that a suspected criminal is an illegal immigrant. And the local rules have no effect on federal authorities, who can still arrest and deport illegal immigrants.
But opponents of illegal immigration have dubbed municipalities with these policies as "sanctuary cities," a term that conveys broader protection than the policies actually give. This is where Romney and Giuliani's attacks on each other are misleading.
Romney is correct that Giuliani was welcoming to immigrants, and he accurately quotes Giuliani's remarks from 1994. The comments come from a New York Times article that said Giuliani gave a "spirited defense of illegal immigrants, virtually urging them to settle in New York City." The article said he "criticized the growing hostility toward illegal immigrants across the country as simplistic and unsophisticated."
But Romney's claim that Giuliani "made New York City what's known as a 'sanctuary city,' where illegal aliens were allowed to come" suggests that the Big Apple was a unique safe haven where they would be free from deportation.
That's not true. Federal authorities could always enforce the law in New York.
And Romney's claim from August that Giuliani "instructed the leaders of the city not to enforce the law, not to enforce immigration law" is also misleading. City workers had no role in enforcing federal law. That's the feds' job.
Giuliani responded Wednesday night by alleging that Romney was weak on immigration when he was governor because he did not speak up or take action against Massachusetts cities that had similar policies to New York's.
Giuliani is on solid ground with this attack. Indeed, there's no evidence that Romney spoke up or took action against those cities. But Romney's inaction toward the cities does not necessarily confirm the Giuliani campaign's larger point — that Romney was soft on illegal immigration. Late in his term, Romney approved a plan to deputize state troopers to help enforce immigration laws, although the plan was not implemented because it was rescinded by his successor, Gov. Deval Patrick.
We rate Giuliani's retort as Mostly True because, although the facts were right, there's not enough evidence to back up Giuliani's larger point that Romney was not aggressive on illegal immigration.
Boston Globe, GOP rivals spar on immigration , Aug. 15, 2007
Congressional Research Service, Enforcing Immigration Law: The Role of State and Local Law Enforcement, Aug. 14, 2006
Pew Hispanic Center, Unauthorized Migrants: Numbers and Characteristics, June 2005
CNN, Romney, Giuliani square off, Aug. 14, 2007
Los Angeles Times, Immigrant issues are personal for Bush, April 2, 2006
Executive Order 124, New York City Policy Concerning Aliens, Aug. 7, 1989