On the issue of climate change, President Trump has been largely silent. On the issue of immigration, he has plenty to say — too much, according to his critics.
The administration’s absent approach on climate and aggressive stance on immigration have frustrated Democrats and ramped up the political gridlock that has seized Washington.
Stuck in the middle are U.S. cities that have found themselves picking up the slack on environmental issues while watching the contentious immigration debate play out on their doorsteps.
With local governments taking the lead in the absence of federal leadership, the 86th Winter Meeting of the United States Conference of Mayors from Jan. 24 to 26 in D.C. brought together nearly 250 mayors from almost every U.S. state and territory. The conference touched on a range of topics, both broad and specific, including: racial and economic inequality; preparing for natural disasters; innovative technologies for education and energy; the fate of brick and mortar stores; homelessness among veterans; childhood obesity; substance abuse; gun violence; and even the importance of sports leagues.
In an awkward dance with the president, one in which mayors stepped forward as Trump stepped back, the meeting covered climate change initiatives that have been making significant strides in cities. Given that some of these American cities wield more economic clout than small nations, the cumulative effect of their efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions is particularly critical given the administration’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord.
Infrastructure investment was another top note during the confab, but moves by the Trump administration at the start of the meeting shifted attention to immigration.
On opening day, Trump fired off a volley by simultaneously subverting and taking advantage of protocol. The president, as is customary, invited mayors to the White House in acknowledgment of the U.S. mayoral meeting, but he didn’t invite the entire conference. Only some mayors were asked to attend while the majority of the conference was kept out of the loop.
The disjointed invitations were naturally seen as a slight and, more significantly, as a ruse. The president, according to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, a Democrat, had invited certain mayors on the pretense of discussing infrastructure and the opioid epidemic, but on the day of the meeting, a letter from the Justice Department was sent to 23 jurisdictions asking for proof that they are not withholding information from federal immigration authorities.
The letter targeted so-called “sanctuary cities” that limit their cooperation with federal authorities to enforce immigration rules. City governments argue that such rules discourage immigrants from working with police or seeking needed services. Those on the list include New York, Chicago, New Orleans and Los Angeles, the mayors of which did not attend the Jan. 24 meeting at the White House, put off by the Justice Department letter. The letter threatened to subpoena or withhold federal funds from those not complying with the Justice Department’s demand.
Setting the Tone on Immigration
While Landrieu said more than once that the conference did not agree as a whole on a path forward on immigration, the dominant tone at the meeting was one of defiance against the administration’s attempts to crack down on illegal immigrants.
In a Jan. 24 press conference, Landrieu, who presided over the meeting, took Trump to task for what he and many other mayors saw as crude tactics, fear-mongering and unconstitutional behavior.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has essentially threatened to “put the mayors of America in jail for following the Constitution of the United States,” argued Landrieu in response to the Justice Department letter. “I can’t ever recall a time in the history of the United States of America where this has happened, number one. Number two, I can’t ever recall a situation where someone who professes to want to work with other people punches them in the face first and says, ‘Now I’d like to talk to you.’”
Mayors who openly accept immigrants, regardless of status, used the term “welcoming city” as opposed to “sanctuary city,” and the opinion heard throughout the conference was one that staunchly supports all forms of immigration. Mayors discussed how immigrants are part of the economic and social fabric of local communities.
“There is no definition in federal law for the term sanctuary city. It does not exist,” said Landrieu.
Members also took swings at the federal government, saying it’s mired in gridlock instead of getting things done.
“If the president of the United States and Congress would do their job, we wouldn’t be having this discussion at all,” said Landrieu. “And if they enacted comprehensive immigration reform, the country would be better off for it.”
Two issues were the focus of the immigration panel: the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and lawsuits related to the Trump administration’s toughened push to enforce immigration law.
DACA was created under the Obama administration and gives a pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, also known as “dreamers.” DACA has been granted to 800,000 people, according to Avideh Moussavian, a senior policy attorney at the National Immigration Law Center. (A total of about 1.8 million people are estimated to have been brought to the country illegally as children.)
The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act is a bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate in 2001 that has repeatedly failed to pass, even though as Moussavian pointed out, recent polling shows 87 percent of Americans nationwide support DACA.
On the campaign trail, Trump promised a tough stance on immigration, and he made good by announcing in September that he would terminate DACA. But he left a door open by adding that Congress has the potential to save dreamers by coming up with a solution by March 5.
Democrats fought to include DACA in the most recent federal budget showdown. Republicans countered with a proposal that would let Democrats have DACA in exchange for a wall along the Mexico border and more restrictive immigration measures, but last-minute talks between the White House and Congress collapsed, leading to a three-day shutdown. Democrats reluctantly dropped their DACA demands, and a sweeping budget deal that added tens of billions of dollars in domestic and defense spending and disaster relief was approved early last month.
Weeks of negotiations in Congress failed to produce a proposal to save the dreamers. Trump scuttled a Senate bipartisan plan that would’ve protected an estimated 1.8 million undocumented dreamers from deportation while providing $25 billion for border security. While the deal satisfied two of Trump’s top demands, it fell short on curbing family chain migration and the diversity visa lottery, both of which Republicans want to phase out in favor of a more limited, merit-based immigration system. So as of press time, the issue of the hundreds of thousands of dreamers who could now be deported remained unresolved heading into the self-imposed March deadline.
Immigration continues to be a sticking point not just on the Hill, but also in the courts, where state and city governments are challenging the administration on DACA, its travel ban and various other immigration policies.
An immigration panel at the mayors’ conference emphasized the case of the City of Chicago v. Sessions. Brian Haussmann, attorney for Chicago in the case, said at the panel that the issue is whether Attorney General Sessions can control federal law enforcement funding based on immigration enforcement-related conditions. This funding comes from the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program, typically referred to as “Byrne JAG.”
The Trump administration argues that “sanctuary cities” are endangering public safety by refusing to share with federal authorities the immigration status of suspects in custody, unless the suspect is charged with a serious crime. These cities counter that enforcing federal immigration law — which includes detaining suspects solely based on their immigration status — is not the job of local officials. They also argue that reducing the fear of deportation increases cooperation between immigrants and local police — and that losing Byrne JAG funds, which support public safety, could actually lead to increased crime.
As litigation winds its way through the courts, the Trump administration has continued to delay the release of almost $300 million in allocated funds to cities and states under Byrne JAG, Haussmann said.
The Chicago case has implications for other “sanctuary cities” and has the potential to go up to the Supreme Court. Philadelphia, San Francisco and Los Angeles have similar litigation.
Frontlines of Climate Change
In addition to fighting Trump on immigration, mayors across the U.S. are battling the administration’s stance on climate change. In his first year in office, Trump announced that he would withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, whereby countries voluntarily commit to limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The pullout has left the U.S. in the awkward position of being the only country in the world to reject the deal, as other governments say they will press ahead with the landmark pact.
Leaders of U.S. cities reacted by renewing their commitment to progressive climate policies to make up for the president’s backtracking. Their efforts may not be at the federal level, but they have potential national and international impact, given that, according to Landrieu, U.S. cities are 86 percent of the population, 91 percent of the GDP and hold 88 percent of U.S. jobs. Progressive climate programs in cities can serve as models for the nation and on a global scale.
The largest U.S. cities are moving forward on climate action by slashing emissions and expanding the use of renewable energy. That includes New York, which continues to feel the $19 billion in economic losses it suffered from Hurricane Sandy, and Los Angeles, which increasingly faces the threat of wildfires, mudslides and drought.
In January 2018, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio took on the fossil fuel industry with a lawsuit against BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Shell for billions of dollars in damages to offset the city’s spending to deal with climate change. He also plans to divest city pension funds from 190 companies that own fossil fuel reserves, an amount that totals around $5 billion. On the policy side, he seeks to reduce citywide greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050.
L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti has pushed to start transitioning the city’s bus fleet to electric vehicles. His goal is a fully electric, zero-emission bus fleet by 2030. The mayoral conference’s host city, the District of Columbia, is also on board for climate change initiatives. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser told The Diplomat that the nation’s capital has committed to developing a pathway to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.
All together, nearly 400 U.S. mayors — many of whose growing urban populations are on the frontlines of natural disasters, extreme weather patterns and rising sea levels — have vowed to adopt the climate targets agreed to in Paris.
“The Paris Agreement is irreversible, and it is gaining speed,” said Ashok-Alexander Sridharan, the mayor of Bonn, Germany, at the climate change panel of the conference. “Still, there is a gap between existing national commitments and needed reductions. Cities and regions are an indispensable part of a grand coalition toward the full and rapid implementation of the Paris Agreement.”
One of the key concerns in climate change initiatives is how to create public-private partnerships so that public policy dovetails with economic growth, instead of pitting business development against the environment.
The mayor of Toronto, Canada, John Tory, shared his city’s success story of a 15 percent greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction between 2007 and 2012 with a focus on jobs and the economy.
“Today, we no longer need to accept the idea that economic success requires pollution,” Tory declared.
He said Toronto achieved GHG reduction by expanding public transit. The city rolled out new buses, streetcars and subway cars, all manufactured in Canada to support the domestic economy. Toronto also has a program that gives low-income people a chance to work in green jobs.
Philips Lighting brought a big business perspective to the panel by acknowledging how the public sector has a strong leadership role to play in environmental initiatives.
“Policy does matter,” said Susanne Seitinger on behalf of Philips, because it leads to industry changes.
In the last year, Philips joined the Global Lighting Challenge and committed to selling more than 2 billion high-efficient LED light bulbs. The company is already at least halfway toward its goal, which is the equivalent to reducing GHG from 60 medium coal-fired power plants or 24 million cars between now and 2020, Seitinger said. Philips wants to achieve an industrial footprint of 100 percent renewable energy.
The cost to consumers of protecting the environment was also addressed at the climate change panel. Robert Kennedy, mayor of Freeport, New York, pointed out that the increasing emphasis on renewable energy has translated into higher rates for some consumers. He proposed that attention be paid to parts of the country that need help transitioning to renewable energy in a way that doesn’t hurt consumers’ pockets.
While Democrats are typically seen as the champions of the environment, bipartisanship was emphasized by the head of the panel, James Brainard, the Republican mayor of Carmel, Indiana.
“If you talk to Republican mayors as well as Democratic mayors across the country, almost every one of them is committed to meeting the goals that we committed to in Paris,” said Brainard. “And given that mayors represent the vast, vast majority of the U.S. population, I suggest that mayors, without any help from the federal government — hopefully we’ll get it at some point — without any help can make certain that the United States meets their goals.”
He added, “I think there’s a special responsibility that falls to people in the Republican party right now to get out and explain that when it comes down to the local level, our constituents don’t care which party we represent. They care about getting the job done. They see the floods, they see the changes in weather, they see all the impacts … caused by climate change and want us to do something.”
About the Author
Aileen Torres-Bennett is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.