On this week’s episode of Stay Tuned, “Biden and the Border,” New Yorker staff writer Dexter Filkins joined Preet to discuss the migrant surge at the Southern Border and its impact on both humanitarian and political considerations, including in New York City. Filkins argued that New York City Mayor Eric Adams is “confronting kind of practical realities” as he pulls back – amid a shortage of beds and services – from his initial embrace of migrants. Back in the late 1990s, now-infamous former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani also entered into a tense political balancing act around protecting undocumented immigrants – and took a view that might surprise those familiar with his current identity.
In 1996, there were 400,000 undocumented immigrants living in New York City. Somewhat shockingly – given both his current political identity and his often-controversial stances on civil rights during his mayoralty – Rudy Giuliani became, over the course of 1996, a vocal champion for this oft-denigrated population.
In early June 1996, Giuliani, a decided Republican even then, began to mount a fierce campaign against a slate of Republican immigration proposals then winding their way through the GOP-controlled Congress.
One proposal aimed to allow city employees, including police officers, teachers, and school administrators to turn in immigrants to the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS), directly contradicting a 1985 New York City executive order from the Mayor Ed Koch era that forbade such reporting unless undocumented immigrants committed crimes.
Giulani appeared at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace in Washington D.C. to speak about the state of immigration legislation in the Republican-dominated Congress. He argued that the proposals were designed to blame undocumented immigrants for the nation’s woes, rather than meaningfully reforming the immigration system:
If legislation like this passes, there will be no real impact on illegal immigration. There will be a tremendous amount of scapegoating and punitive measures put into place.
Giuliani also criticized the Gallegly Amendment, a separate proposal by California Republican Congressman Elton Gallegly that aimed to formally bar undocumented children from public schools across the country. Gallegly had laid out his perspective in a May 1996 Los Angeles Times op-ed:
One of these days, President Clinton is going to have to sit down at his desk, pen in hand, and decide whether he cares more about illegal immigrants or American taxpayers, or about lawbreakers who should be escorted out of the country or the citizens saddled with providing them a free public education.
Giuliani, in sharp contrast, told the Carnegie Endowment crowd that the children should be accepted into schools to avoid a humanitarian crisis:
The reality is that they are here, and they’re going to remain here. The choice becomes for a city: what do you do? Allow them to stay on the streets or allow them to be educated? The preferred choice from the point of view of New York City is to be educated and try to deal with the problem in the most humane and sensible way.
Giuliani was breaking from the GOP in a dramatic public forum. After the talk, Giuliani formally called out the leader of his Party, Senate Majority Leader and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole, to reporters for Dole’s support of the stringent immigration laws:
Maybe there’s a chance when Senator Dole takes a really close look at this, what he might gain in doing what appears to be the politically popular thing might not be as lasting as what he would gain in showing that he’s a leader.
Representative Gallegly did not hold back in his criticism of Giuliani:
Rudy Giuliani is out of step with America and has a group of people he has to pander to.
And the New York Times argued that the Big Apple’s mayor had decidedly drifted from the immigration perspectives at the core of the GOP. “He Hardens His Reputation as a Party Pariah,” read the paper’s subtitle on its coverage of Giuliani’s Carnegie remarks.
The Gallegly education ban and the larger GOP immigration bill festered over Summer 1996. The provision allowing city employees to turn in undocumented immigrants, however, found its way into an obscure passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, a welfare reform proposal that a rightward-turning Clinton signed into law in August 1996 (and which took away welfare benefits for recent legal immigrants, too).
Giuliani quickly found the provision and began another offensive. He had plenty of forums at which to criticize the federal go-ahead for turning in undocumented immigrants; by September 1996, he had received 100 invitations to think tanks, clubs, and universities to discuss his support for immigration.
At Georgetown University Law School on September 12th, 1996, Giuliani highlighted the potential negative impacts of the turn-ins, sketching out a situation in which an undocumented victim of abuse would avoid going to the authorities for fear of deportation:
This really constitutes inhumane and indecent treatment. Think of the situation in which someone is illegal and…is being subjected to domestic violence…A person like that would have to make a choice between reporting that to the police, and run the risk that the police would report you to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or you would stay in the situation in which you’re being beaten.
And he highlighted how undocumented children could be forced into truancy:
The illegal and undocumented parent, seeking to put their child in public school would not know whether the superintendent or the principal or the administrator of that school was going to ask a question: ‘Are you a citizen? Are you a legal resident alien, or are you illegal?
“I hope it won’t be political suicide,” Giuliani said of his outspoken remarks.
On September 30th, Giuliani offered a keynote speech titled “The New Immigrants” at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. The full C-SPAN coverage of the address is available here.
Giuliani argued that America was in crisis, but that immigrants would be a balm to the struggling nation:
Immigrants are exactly what America needs. They’re what we need economically, and I think they’re what we need morally — because we’re a country that doubts itself right now.
He also argued that the anti-immigrant sentiment then beginning to intensify in the GOP had shades of past nativist American movements and had to be stopped:
The anti-immigration movement that’s now sweeping the country in my view is no different than the movements that swept the country in the past. You look back at the Chinese Exclusionary Act, or the Know-Nothing movement — these were movements that encouraged Americans to fear foreigners, to fear something that’s different, and to stop immigration.
And he argued that anti-immigrant voices were hypocritical, allowing undocumented immigrants to work low-wage jobs but denying them basic support:
It is basically unfair and irrational discrimination to say, ‘We’ll let you in, we’ll take your money, we’ll treat you exactly like a citizen for the purpose of extracting your wealth, but we won’t treat you that way for the purposes of giving out benefits.’
Over the following weeks, Giuliani continued to preach his pro-immigrant message. At the stuffy Union League Club, Giuliani – to a largely silent audience – called himself “the biggest supporter of immigrants left in the United States of America.”
Speaking at the Harvard Kennedy School on October 11th, he proclaimed:
America needs an open and a frank discussion about immigration, and it should be decided with a lot more emphasis on trying to get beyond the sound bite and a quick emotional response, because I believe the threat to immigration is really a threat to the future of the country.
During the same speech, Giuliani announced the formation of a coalition of powerful New Yorkers who supported immigrants. The group eventually included a star-studded membership including Loew’s Corporation Chairman Robert Tisch, pop artist Peter Max, guitarist Carlos Santana, architect I.M. Pei, and Giuliani’s current scapegoat for virtually everything, financier-activist George Soros.
And he revealed his plans to use the courts to overturn the reporting provision in the welfare law. “The only thing I really know how to do is sue,” he told the crowd.
The next day, on October 12th, 1996, Giuliani sued the federal government in an attempt to overturn the welfare provision allowing the reporting of undocumented immigrants. He claimed that the law violated the 10th Amendment, which empowered the states to make all laws not formally given to the federal government in the Constitution. The suit, however, suffered by dint of the fact that naturalization was in fact an enumerated power given to Congress.
Giuliani kept up his pro-immigrant push into 1997, securing $12 million in the city budget to set up naturalization assistance centers and continuing to battle – mostly unsuccessfully – against the reporting provision and the broader suspension of benefits built into the new welfare law.
He also wrote a passionate op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in January, “Keep America’s Door Open,” in which he somehow managed to tie protections of undocumented immigrants into a broader defense of his ostensibly dissonant law and order crime policies:
A criminal who victimizes an undocumented immigrant might attack a legal resident next. Discouraging the reporting of crimes would make it more difficult for the police to track criminal activity. New York now leads the nation in crime reduction, but we cannot catch criminals, prevent crime and protect the public if we don’t have accurate information about where and when crimes are occurring.
Giuliani became more inconsistent in his championing of immigrants leading up to his 1997 reelection, running a campaign mostly focused on his crime record. After securing a second term, however, he began to ramp up the rhetoric again.
The ebb and flow of Giuliani’s immigration pitch led one-time Clinton political consultant Dick Morris to imply that Giuliani was attempting to build a coalition with Latino voters for a U.S. Senate run in 2000, rather than expressing genuine passion for civil protections. “When he says ‘immigrants,’ that’s code word for Hispanics,” Morris told the press.
Clearly, something dramatic was indeed afoot in Giuliani’s political and moral calculus, judging by his drift over the past 28 years toward embracing decidedly anti-immigrant rhetoric. While Giuliani’s sincerity may be hard to pin down, his expression of pro-immigrant sentiment provides a surreal mirror through which to view Mayor Adams’s current conundrum – and the broader political scene.
For more on Giuliani’s bizarre political odyssey, check out Andrew Kirtzman’s 2022 Giuliani The Rise and Tragic Fall of America’s Mayor.
And head to my Twitter account for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.
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Catch up on some recent Time Machine deep dives into history: