Trump and the 21st-Century Nullifiers

February 09, 2017

Some White House staffers see Donald Trump as Andrew Jackson’s reincarnation—a populist president fighting eastern elites on behalf of the common people.

Comparisons often fall apart, as this one does. Jackson was a state Supreme Court justice, congressman, senator and general before becoming president. This is Mr. Trump’s first government experience. Jackson destroyed the nation’s central bank. Mr. Trump seeks to roll back onerous banking regulations.

But here’s an apt comparison: Both presidents were opposed by nullifiers—politicians who hold that certain federal laws are “null, void, and no law, nor binding” in their states, as an 1832 South Carolina convention declared.

Jackson’s foes opposed what they called the “Tariff of Abominations,” which levied high duties on raw materials Southerners needed. States, they said, had a right to ignore federal law and halt the collection of the unpopular tariffs at their ports. Washington could legislate, but states could make federal laws inoperative within their borders.

Mr. Trump’s nullifier opponents include governors, mayors and sheriffs who refuse to obey federal laws and provide information about violent illegal aliens in their jails. They, too, believe they can declare a federal law null and void within their jurisdictions. Like Jackson’s adversaries, Mr. Trump’s antagonists have no constitutional ground to stand on.

San Francisco officials refuse to tell Immigration and Customs Enforcement when the city has violent illegal aliens in its jail or to hand them over to ICE after they are released. By doing so, San Francisco is asserting its sovereignty over the federal government, the same way Vice President John C. Calhoun encouraged South Carolina to do in the 1832 tariff fight.

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee argues noncooperation makes the city safer. South Carolina’s Sen. Robert Y. Hayne similarly claimed that nullifying the federal tariff law would make his state more prosperous. He lost his debate with Daniel Webster on that point because a law’s perceived local effect does not provide a constitutional basis for nullification.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio reject federal law regarding criminal aliens in their municipal justice systems in order to protect “diversity.” Particularly tone-deaf, Mr. Emanuel said he wanted people to know “you are welcome in Chicago as you pursue the American Dream.”

Leave it to liberals to argue that people arrested for felonies—some violent crimes against persons, some crimes against property—are pursuing the American Dream. Nor does “diversity” provide a basis for these officials to nullify federal law within their cities.

During the campaign, much that candidate Trump said was meant for shock value and to serve his immediate political needs. But whenever he dealt with violent acts by illegal aliens, he displayed raw, deep emotion. This issue was personally important to him: He had several visits with families whose loved ones were killed by illegal aliens, and relatives of victims spoke at his rallies or appeared in ads. For the president and many other Americans, the idea of sanctuary cities and potentially sanctuary states (New York and California) is disturbing.

There are work-arounds. After the sheriff in Travis County, Texas, said she would no longer cooperate with federal immigration detainers for illegal aliens in her custody, ICE officials obtained federal warrants that the sheriff could not ignore. But why not simply honor the law without forcing ICE to jump through extra hoops?

Part of it is politics. Take hyperambitious Rep. Joaquin Castro. The Texas Democrat says Congress should consider impeaching Mr. Trump if he defies a judicial stay on his 90-day immigration freeze from seven countries. But Mr. Castro supports sanctuary cities that proudly flout federal law.

Trump Derangement Syndrome is also becoming prevalent, and so far its most bizarre expression is the ballot effort to make California an independent nation. Memo to the Golden State: Secession was decisively settled at Appomattox in April 1865.

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Today’s nullifiers are entitled to challenge in court the underlying statutory authority of federal requests for information and cooperation or Mr. Trump’s threat to withhold federal funds. But they aren’t entitled to ignore federal statutes at whim.

Sadly, this new defense of sanctuary cities has increased the difficulty of forging a national consensus for comprehensive immigration reform, which, if done right, would make America safer, more prosperous and still welcoming. If Democrats really care about the safety of their communities and the rights of legal immigrants, they’d do well to support reform instead of nullification.

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