Why on earth is Washington, D.C., a sanctuary city? None of the legal arguments the open-borders crowd make for other sanctuary jurisdictions even remotely apply to the nation’s capital. And yet the District of Columbia is still hell-bent on going even further. So it’s time for the federal government to reel the federal city back in.
D.C. is not a state, no matter how much its local political establishment may act like it is. It is a creation of federal law, and a place where the federal government has much more sweeping authority than out in the rest of the country. Under Article I, Section 8, clause 17 of the U.S. Constitution, Congress has the power to “[t]o exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District … as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of Government of the United States[.]” Congress used this power to pass the Residence Act of 1790 and the Organic Act of 1801, creating the District of Columbia out of territory granted by Maryland and Virginia. The Virginia portion, now Arlington County and the City of Alexandria, was retroceded (returned to Virginia) by Congress in 1846.
The District has had a variety of arrangements for its local government since its creation, but the current structure dates back only 45 years, to the District of Columbia Home Rule Act, passed by Congress in 1973. Under the Home Rule Act, D.C. has an elected mayor and council who can pass and enforce laws for it, but with significant exceptions. Most notably, Congress reviews all legislation passed by the council and can block it before it goes into effect—including the District’s budget.
Congress has exercised this power several times, on issues ranging from abortion funding to needle exchanges to medical marijuana, yet never on immigration. This neglect by Congress of such an important national issue appears to have emboldened successive mayors and councilmembers to make D.C. the sanctuary city it now is.
The District started officially adopting sanctuary policies at least as far back as 1984, when then-Mayor Marion Barry (D) issued a memo prohibiting D.C. officers and employees from asking anyone about their immigration status, with a narrow exception only for determining eligibility for public benefits. In 2011, then-Mayor Vincent Gray (D) expanded this to also prohibit officers from stopping or detaining anyone based on suspicion of being an illegal alien, and to deny immigration authorities access to inmates in D.C. custody “without a criminal nexus.” And in 2012, the D.C. council passed a local law saying immigration detainers would only be honored if: 1) there was a written agreement with the federal government to reimburse D.C. for compliance costs and 2) the arrestee had been convicted of a “dangerous crime” or “crime of violence” within the previous ten years.
Current Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) has defiantly insisted that even in the age of President Trump’s commitment to enforcing our immigration laws, “[t]he District is and will continue to be a sanctuary city.” Her own addition to D.C.’s ever-growing panoply of sanctuary policies was the creation of its “Immigrant Justice Legal Services Grant Program,” which since 2017 has paid out more than half a million taxpayer dollars a year, including on lawyers to fight the deportation of illegal aliens. It’s set to increase to $900,000 next year.
And if even that’s not enough, now Councilmember Brandon Todd (D) wants to “double down on … sanctuary city policies” by criminalizing landlords and employers reporting illegal aliens to immigration authorities. His bill would make that “extortion,” punishable by up to ten years in prison.
There is no excuse whatsoever for Congress to allow all this dangerous absurdity to continue under their very noses. Unlike other sanctuary jurisdictions that can try to hide behind the Tenth Amendment or whatever else, D.C. is a creation of Congress and can only do what Congress lets it do. Up until now, they have let it do far too much.