How much are Democrats depending on the Hispanic vote next year? To restate the question, how much do Democrats believe that their success depends on Hispanic votes? The answer may explain today's procedural vote in the U.S. Senate, through which the Democratic minority blocked Republican legislation that would reduce the federal money going to self-described "sanctuary cities," those municipalities large and small that withhold cooperation from federal efforts to arrest and deport illegal immigrants. I don't mean to suggest that only Hispanics, or only ethnic groups with large first-generation cohorts, could support such a measure. Many self-styled liberals and progressives of all races support the sanctuary-city concept. Some take the dogmatic position that "no one is illegal" or deem it hypocritical that the heirs of the uninvited immigrants of 1492 and beyond want to dictate who can come here next. Some see the defense of the undocumented as morally equivalent to resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act. As far as I can tell, the consensus now is that 19th century cities and citizens who denied aid to federal proceedings against alleged fugitive slaves, and who sometimes fought slave-hunters and assisted fugitives in escaping local jails, were moral heroes despite defying federal law and exacerbating sectional tensions. When Republicans (and many populists irrespective of party) protest that sanctuary cities are lawless, it sounds to many progressive ears like the protests of slaveholders. Just as the slave was credited with a human right, prior to law, to escape slavery, so the immigrant, especially when portrayed as a refugee, is credited with a human right to seek a better life wherever he can find it that overrides even the will of the sovereign people and their representatives. It sounds fine and noble in progressive circles but it's a tougher sell elsewhere, if only because the undocumented immigrant doesn't enjoy the presumption of innocence, much less moral superiority, granted by many to the fugitive slave.
Despite the multitudes of runaways who came north via the Underground Railroad and other means, the archetypal fugitive slave was a heroic individual, a full American in fact if not in law, while the immigrant, especially when he's Hispanic or one of the now-dreaded Syrian refugees, is perceived as part of a faceless, foreign-sounding horde whose arrival threatens to destabilize communities. Ultimately, while people can imagine a human right to escape from slavery, and a corollary moral imperative to shelter such escapees, it doesn't follow analogically that there's an equal human right to flee a destabilized, impoverished country, much less a local prerogative to shelter such refugees if a paramount representative government denies them shelter. It's arguable that the prospective refugee has some obligation, as a citizen of his homeland, to stay on and set things right, rather than assume helplessness and flee, while the slave, by comparison, need not be obliged to kill his owner and take over the plantation if he wants to be free. So long as slavery is deemed unjust the slave is entitled to the route of least resistance; whether the citizen of an impoverished or oppressed nation is similarly entitled is less certain. This is certainly too abstract for the most visceral opponents of sanctuary cities, but how do you answer them when they accuse those cities of lawlessness, especially after some of the same people who applaud sanctuary cities were quick to condemn the lawlessness of Kim Davis, the clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky who refused marriage licenses to homosexual couples on alleged divine authority, and still more of them routinely affirm the primacy of central government over localities on questions of marriage rights, voting rights, etc? If one person's "conscience" can't trump law, why should someone else's? I don't raise these questions to justify a crackdown on sanctuary cities, but to warn people that such questions will be raised, so that defenders of sanctuary cities had better have better answers ready than their knee-jerk appeals to pity or swipes at bigotry. Maybe Democrats feel so certain of the sufficiency of Hispanic and progressive support that they feel no need to answer rather than insult those who question their position. That could be a mistake, and it might be a fatal one in 2016.