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Madam Mayor, save the word ‘racist’ for the clear and real thing

We agree that two aldermen who argued against an ordinance extending protections for undocumented immigrants were “misguided.” But xenophobic and racist?

Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) chats with a colleague before a Chicago City Council meeting in 2019.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Ald. Anthony Napolitano and Ald. Ray Lopez on Wednesday argued against an ordinance that will extend protections for undocumented immigrants in Chicago from federal immigration agents.

For this, Mayor Lori Lightfoot labeled Napolitano and Lopez with one of the most dangerous words in Chicago politics — racist. Their comments, she said, were “racist, xenophobic and misguided.”

Talk about shutting down debate.

We don’t agree with Napolitano and Lopez, either. For more than three years, we editorialized in support of three of the ordinance’s four new protections for undocumented immigrants. We’re glad the ordinance was passed by the City Council, and by a strong vote of 41 to 8.

But in arguing for these reforms, we tried to stick to the facts and the fairness of the matter. We understood why other well-intended people might disagree, and we saw no justification for trying to kick them out of the public debate altogether by calling them names.

The ordinance eliminates four exceptions to Chicago’s Welcoming City ordinance. The police no longer can turn over to federal immigration agents undocumented immigrants who have criminal charges or convictions in their background or who are the subject of federal criminal warrants. The police also cannot cooperate with federal agents just because an arrested person’s name is in the city’s gang member database.

There’s a counterintuitiveness to the wisdom of these changes. We appreciate that. Critics say the ordinance protects criminals.

But our long-standing argument, still firmly held, is that it is wrong to allow deportations based merely on a suspicion that a person has committed a crime. People deserve their day in court if they have outstanding criminal warrants or are awaiting trials. And Chicago’s gang database is infamously inaccurate.

If it were up to us, we would strike one provision from the ordinance. We think the police still should be allowed to cooperate with the feds when an undocumented immigrant has a conviction for an aggravated felony such as murder, rape, sex abuse of minors or drug trafficking. Even properly documented immigrants — those with green cards — face immediate deportation in such circumstances once they have served their time.

We fail, though, to see how Lopez’s criticism of the ordinance — that it could add to the problem of gang violence in his Southwest Side ward — was “xenophobic” and beyond the pale of acceptable debate. We fail to see how it was “racist” for Napolitano to argue that the ordinance will make Chicago the go-to place for “a convicted felon or a fugitive.”

We agree with Lightfoot that the two aldermen are “misguided.” And certainly they were hyperventilating a bit.

But, to our ears, their words fell squarely in the category of fair comment.

When the mayor or anybody so cavalierly labels a person or a comment as racist, he or she devalues the word. It loses its excellent power to punch.

Better to reserve the word for the real thing, of which there is no shortage.

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