Trump adds divisive immigration issue to debate over state aid

Republicans, Democrats trade opposing policy demands on immigration, jobs and funding for states hurt by coronavirus.

immigration stimulus
A message on the back window of a pick-up truck truck being driven during a protest calling for the release of detainees at an immigration detention centre because of the dangers posed by the new coronavirus in Denver, Colorado, the United States [David Zalubowski/Ap Photo]

United States President Donald Trump this week joined other Republican leaders in resisting rising calls from Democrats and many governors across the US for federal aid to states and cities, and added a divisive immigration issue to the mix.

“The problem with the states is we’re not looking to recover 25 years of bad management and to give them the money that they lost. It’s unfair to other states,” Trump said at the White House, echoing earlier comments by a top Republican lawmaker.

Trump suggested that any federal aid would be contingent on so-called “sanctuary cities” giving up protections for immigrants against federal deportation.

“What’s happening is people are being protected that shouldn’t be protected and a lot of bad things are happening with sanctuary cities,” Trump said.

“If we’re going to do something for the states, I think they’d probably want something having to do with sanctuary cities,” he added.

Congressional Democrats will not go along with Trump’s suggestion and instead will want to include provisions in the next round of coronavirus legislation that would protect immigrants from losing their rights to live and work in the US.

“Not only are immigrants treating people in the hospitals, they are also picking food in the fields, they are delivering that food and keeping the food supply chain alive,” said Pili Tobar, deputy director of America’s Voice, a pro-immigration advocacy group.

“We need those workers, and they shouldn’t be having to put their lives on the line while also worrying about an administration that is trying to deport them, criminalise them and attack them at every turn,” Tobar told Al Jazeera.

The US Congress has passed four pieces of legislation in response to the coronavirus pandemic, providing nearly $3 trillion in rescue funding for the economy and medical response. None of the funds approved so far would help states and cities directly.

The National Governors Association has called on Congress to allocate $500bn to help offset drastic shortfalls in state revenues resulting from the coronavirus shutdowns and emergency spending.

“To stabilize state budgets and to make sure states have the resources to battle the virus and provide the services the American people rely on, Congress must provide immediate fiscal assistance directly to all states,” Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said in a joint statement.

Trump to suspend all immigration into US over COVID-19 (6:20)

Congress did not include funding for the states in a $484bn bill that was designed to help small businesses and hospitals and that was passed on April 21 – and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell drew a line in the sand against bailing out the states.

“I would certainly be in favour of allowing states to use the bankruptcy route,” McConnell said on a top conservative US talk radio show.

“My guess is their first choice would be for the federal government to borrow money from future generations to send it down to them now so they don’t have to do that. That’s not something I’m going to be in favour of,” McConnell said.

The Senate Republican leader more recently has said he wants to see a liability shield included in a next round of legislation that would protect employers from legal claims from employees or customers who get sick from the coronavirus. Democrats say that’s a non-starter.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer this week called McConnell’s posture “despicable” and “calloused” and said it would lead to “hundreds of thousands” of job losses for state and city workers.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo blistered Republicans for turning the debate over providing emergency support to states into – as he put it – an us vs. them, red-state versus blue-state dialogue.

“When you start to politicise this situation, and you start to say red and blue, and this team and that team, you may as well take a wedge and hammer it right into the middle of this country,” Cuomo said at his regular daily press briefing on Wednesday.

“If this becomes a finger-pointing game and you divide this country, the worst could lie ahead,” he said.

New York has been hardest hit by the virus among US states and accounts for more than 295,000 cases and 17,600 deaths of the more than one million cases and 60,000 deaths nationwide, according to official tallies.

New York residents pay $29bn more in taxes to the federal government than they receive back in funding for expenses such as welfare and education, Cuomo said.

Republican-led states like Florida and Kentucky receive more than $30bn more than they each pay in, he said, citing data from tax revenue studies.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, who has been fiercely critical of the Trump administration’s handling of the outbreak, has begun outlining priorities for a fifth bill to include the funding. 

“We have to respect that there are many people who are risking their lives to save lives and their jobs may be lost if we don’t do the state and local,” Pelosi said in an interview on a US cable news channel on Wednesday.

In addition to bailout funds in the form of grants to states and localities, Pelosi wants funding for the US Postal Service, and mail-in balloting, which Trump has said he opposes.

municipal worker
A municipal worker walks near buses at a San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency yard in San Francisco, California [File: Jeff Chiu/Ap Photo]

No resolution of the conflict appears likely soon. While the 100-member Senate is due to return to work next week, the larger, 435-member House of Representatives has postponed plans to return until medical officials see further reductions in coronavirus transmission in Washington, DC.

“Right now, state and local governments are going broke,” said Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union, in a conference call with reporters on Tuesday.

“With the economy in a tailspin and the tax base crumbling, they have begun imposing layoffs and furloughs,” Saunders said. AFSCME is the largest US union of public-sector employees, representing 1.3 million workers.

AFSCME member Shirley Thomas, a school custodian in Jacksonville, Florida who was furloughed after the pandemic hit, said she hopes Congress will act soon to bring her job back.

“I hope Congress won’t abandon me or others like me who just want to help our communities get back on their feet,” Thomas said on the call with union chief Saunders.

Source: Al Jazeera