After an emotional debate that harkened back to America’s darkest, most intolerant days, the City Council on Wednesday accused Gov. Bruce Rauner of overstepping his legal authority by trying to temporarily block the flow of Syrian refugees into Illinois in the wake of Paris terrorist attacks.
Aldermen unanimously approved a resolution reaffirming Chicago’s status as a “sanctuary city” where illegal immigrants can live without fear of police harassment and underscored the city’s commitment to remain a “place of sanctuary for refugees from around the world.”
The message to Rauner was loud and clear — and Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he is certain his old friend got the message: Aldermen believe the governor has no legal right to temporarily stop accepting Syrian refugees. Nor is that fear-mongering, knee-jerk reaction to the Paris attacks the appropriate or humane message to send.
“At every moment in American history, there has been a point where we have walked away from our values: the Alien-Sedition Act; Habeus Corpus; the Japanese internment and when the St. Louis boat from Germany turned kids away from these shores,” an emotional Emanuel told the City Council.
“At every one of those dark moments, America was not stronger. America was weaker, because we actually wavered in our commitment to our values and who we are. For those who talk about putting a pause on our values, what built this country was not putting a pause on our values, our freedom and our ideals. It was doubling down and committing to those values because that is why America is still a beacon of hope.”
In the gallery for the emotional debate were Fadi and Fatima Idriss, Syrian refugees who settled in Chicago in February. The couple was introduced and got a standing ovation.
Emanuel said the couple undoubtedly saw in Chicago what his grandparents saw when they fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe.
“Whether it was leaving the Jim Crow laws, Nazi Germany, what happens in Africa today or what is happening in Syria and Iraq — every one of us … our families have taken a journey. Not just to a place, but to a set of ideas. A set of values. And it cannot be at this moment — for those in France have the courage to commit themselves to their values —that we are weakened and walk away from them.”
Ald. Danny Solis (25th) was moved to tears as he talked about arriving in Chicago in 1956 at the age of six and spending his first Christmas in this welcoming city.
“I remember the first time that my dad … walked us down Michigan Avenue. The Prudential building was the tallest building in Chicago. I remember the first Christmas we had where we really didn’t have a lot of money, but a Catholic church here in Chicago provided us with gifts. I remember that first Christmas dinner with my father, my mother and three of my sisters. I was the oldest of the siblings and my dad sitting there talking about how we had won the lottery,” Solis recalled.
“I’m emotional right now. People should understand what this country means to immigrants and refugees across this world. And if we turn our back on these refugees, we are becoming unfeeling, without a heart and not recognizing that we need these immigrants to continue to build our country.”
Ald. Edward Burke (14th), chief sponsor of the resolution, was asked before the debate what power the City Council has to weigh in on the President Obama’s commitment to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year or on Rauner’s decision to turn them away temporarily for fear that a terrorist might be among the refugees.
“No, we don’t. We have as much power as the governor has, which is none. But, what we do have is the opportunity to go on the record in stating that Chicago, the most American of American cities, welcomes people in distress and trouble and tries to help, rather than demonizing them,” Burke said.
“I hope it will encourage other like-minded cities around the nation to do the same.”