Yvonne Abraham

Their incompetence won’t protect us

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said sanctuary cities should lose out on some federal funds.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said sanctuary cities should lose out on some federal funds.(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The Trump administration is a study in malevolent incompetence right now, reeling from an ignominious defeat on Trumpcare, sputtering amidst the giant plumes of smoke rising from its members’ possible connections with Russia.

But there’s one thing at which the administration is succeeding spectacularly: striking terror into undocumented immigrants and those who care about them.

Those destructive effects were on full display in a school auditorium in Salem Wednesday night, as residents gathered to debate an ordinance making theirs a sanctuary city.

On Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions upped the stakes on the already painful local debate. Bringing his special brand of aw-shucks heartlessness to the White House briefing room, he threatened to withhold some federal funds from cities that don’t cooperate with immigration authorities. His threat helped make the marathon hearing on the Salem measure even more emotional — as did the rumors ricocheting around the Latino community of undocumented immigrants being snatched from their families.

As sanctuary ordinances go, Salem’s is largely symbolic, formalizing policies already in place: Police and other officials do not ask residents who report crimes, pay traffic tickets, or visit their kids’ schools about their immigration status. Police will share information if federal immigration authorities request it. They cannot stop ICE from arresting people. Still, passing the measure will send an important message to every law-abiding resident of Salem: that it’s none of the city’s business how they got there. Nothing about this violates federal law.


“A local law is one way to make sure our immigrant neighbors know their neighbors respect them,” said Mayor Kim Driscoll.

Parts of the meeting, which I saw on video, were hard to watch. A few speakers were straight-up racist, trucking in ugly stereotypes and bogus numbers, characterizing all undocumented immigrants as criminals and welfare sponges who want to harm Salem’s honest taxpayers and “white people.”


Tougher still was the testimony of speakers who gave voice to the fear that has taken hold among immigrants. The guidance counselor at Salem High said some of her students were scared to come to school. A child named Molly spoke in place of her best friend, an undocumented child who was “too afraid to walk out of her home.” An immigrant attorney told of a client whose 7-year-old is terrified he will come home one day to find his mother gone.

A student at Salem High said he knew city officials could not put a dome over the city to keep ICE agents out. “That’s not what we need,” he said, through tears. “It’s kind of like a halo that we need, a feeling of reassurance.”

And then there were the residents who opposed the ordinance because, despite assurances from city officials, they feared Sessions and Trump would make good on their threats.

“I support what you’re trying to do,” said one woman, who worried about putting a target on the city’s back. “[But] that word, ‘sanctuary,’ why do we have to have it?”

In that auditorium was an image of how the America we thought we had can end: with a race-baiting government blaming a group of vulnerable people for problems they have no part in; with bigots emboldened by that cynical stance; with people terrified their families will be torn apart; with their neighbors intimidated into lying low.


Salem has some experience here, forged three centuries ago, with the witch trials.

“No other place knows better that when good people remain silent, bad things happen,” Driscoll said. “We cannot give in to that fear and that hatred, on either side.”

By a 7-to-4 vote, the ordinance was approved. It was a close call for a city as inclusive as Salem, where a nondiscrimination measure was a unanimous no-brainer three years ago.

It speaks to the divisions this administration has already sown. And to how incompetence will not protect us from its cruelty.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.