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Last Monday, in Southern California, the Pasadena City Council voted 5-2 for a resolution denouncing Arizona SB 1070 and also unanimously for a resolution calling for the federal government to act on immigration.
The debate by the public and elected officials at the meeting was lively and centered around a few contentious foci.
One of these was whether Pasadena had any business officially commenting on the laws passed by a state that it does not even inhabit.
This issue has two elements, a legal question and an ethical question.
First published in The Examiner.
The legal question is easy enough to debate based on precedents and jurisdiction. Starting with the most contentious option, which was not brought up by the council members, a boycott.
Does the Pasadena City Council have the legal authority, as some called for, to impose a boycott on Arizona? For this, one could point to the University of California Board of Regents divestment in South Africa during Apartheid as a precedent. The money that the Regents handle comes from various sources, including the state government (taxpayers), students, alumni, and partners. It is by no means a private fund such as a corporation might enjoy. The Regents had authority over these funds and used it express opposition to the practices of a foreign government. They did this even though, ostensibly, some of the tax payers, students, or partners may not have agreed with their action.
A similar logic could have held for Pasadena. The City Council is in charge of the allocation of funds that come from the tax payers, parking tickets, fees, etc. It could have exerted its authority to manage the funds in order to make a political point. It could even justify incurring some losses, as the Regents no doubt did. Moving over the heads of some citizens that did not agree could also be justified along the same lines. Voters elected this Council into office to delegate to them the power over their finances even if they do not always agree (eg. which pot hole to fix first).
In any case the argument is moot because no Council member even floored a proposition to impose a boycott. The choice they went with, a denunciation, was much less contentious legally but involved some ethical debates.
Arguments citing the number of other problems Pasadena has on its plate, like those expressed by Councilwoman McAustin, hang on whether it is ethical for the Council to take up an outside issue during a time of budget crisis. There is no legal rule saying that the Council must deal with its more serious issues before going into the more superfluous ones. This would interfere with the long standing practice of City Councils’ all over the country of honoring citizens, students, or public figures during meetings; in fact, for a number of citizens, this is the only experience with the municipal government they will have. If the City Council has the legal right to take time to honor the local high school athletic team or generous philanthrope, it can spare a day for a political debate relevant to a large percentage of the city’s population.
McAustin’s other point was one of propriety. In her view, it was not ethically appropriate for the Council to publicly and officially denounce the actions of another local government; actions that could only have indirect consequences in Pasadena (it should be quickly noted that this last statement is debatable as the aim of SB 1070 was to push undocumented immigrants out of Arizona; many may end up coming to California). Councilman Gordo countered by asking what made it appropriate for the Council, including McAustin, to speak out and denounce the Armenian Genocide some months before. Opponents may have taken this to mean Gordo was comparing SB 1070 to genocide but the point was much finer. If the Council has the prerogative to speak out against the past actions of a foreign government, why is it not allowed to do the same for the recent actions of the government of a neighboring state?
Some may point to the gravity of the action in question. The Armenian Genocide was an unjustifiable and illegal act of systematic violence by the Ottoman Empire against its Armenian Population. Is it really fair to apply the same standards against SB 1070, which, after all, was passed in a representative government? Is SB 1070 bad enough to elicit a resolution of denunciation?
The problem with this argument is that it leads to a slippery slope. This is what Councilman Madison, Randy Jurado Ertll, and Angelica Salas implied with their comments. The Councilman cited a famous Edmund Burke quote that calls for good people to avoid lethargy in stopping evil. Ertll and Salas both argued that SB 1070 was wrong, even if it was supported by the majority of Arizonans. If SB 1070 isn’t enough to act upon, what is? Historically, it has been a grand mistake to wait for conditions to get bad enough to require action. Ethically, the Pasadena City Council had a strong case for passing a resolution denouncing the Arizona immigration law rather than attempting to draw a line in the sand.