BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. "Let them construct a sanctuary for me that I may dwell among them." Those words, spoken by the Lord in the book of Exodus, are almost certainly familiar to Mitt Romney and Rudolph Giuliani. When Moses received that command some 3,500 years ago, his understanding of the word "sanctuary" was as a place of refuge and safety. Oh, have times have changed. MAN: New York is a sanctuary city. It is the most notorious sanctuary city. WOMAN: We have a choice in this country. Are we a sanctuary nation or a sovereign nation? MAN: And this all stems - WOMAN: Right, right. But - MAN: - from a sanctuary city policy that allows illegal immigrants to do anything they want to do. BOB GARFIELD: It seems that "sanctuary," in the parlance of Republican primary politics, has become a bad word. ABC News senior political correspondent Jake Tapper has been following the recent rhetoric, and he joins me now. Jake, welcome back to On the Media. JAKE TAPPER: Always a pleasure. BOB GARFIELD: Let's first define the term "sanctuary city." JAKE TAPPER: Well, conservatives are using this term disparagingly, to criticize cities like New York City, Newark, some states, even, like Oregon and Alaska, where law enforcement does not pursue illegal immigrants for violating immigration laws and city and state services are available to illegal immigrants and their children. BOB GARFIELD: Now, the term "sanctuary city" had swirled around conservative talk radio and the right-wing blogosphere for a while, but it was only very recently that it showed up in the Presidential campaign. You were actually at the event where Mitt Romney first broke this out. JAKE TAPPER: Romney had been saying it a few times here and there on the stump, especially in Iowa, where this is a big issue among conservative Republican voters. He's trying to use it as a substantive way to paint Giuliani as a Manhattan liberal.
He recently ran a radio ad talking about New York City being a sanctuary city. BOB GARFIELD: Let's actually hear that radio spot. [CLIP] [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] MITT ROMNEY: Immigration laws don't work if they're ignored. That's the problem with cities like Newark, San Francisco and New York City that adopt sanctuary policies. Sanctuary cities become magnets that encourage illegal immigration and undermine the security - [VOICE FADES OUT] [END OF CLIP] JAKE TAPPER: We should point out that while Mitt Romney was governor of Massachusetts, three cities either reaffirmed or affirmed their status as sanctuary cities in Massachusetts. So while Romney's going after Giuliani as a liberal, Giuliani's campaign is going after Romney as a flip-flopper, and that fits into both narrative attacks against the other. BOB GARFIELD: Now, you know, you could laugh this off up to a point, I suppose, but sometimes the rhetoric gets very heated and maybe very irresponsible. Tell me about how the shooting in Newark, New Jersey, earlier this month by Hispanic perpetrators has played into this whole debate about sanctuary. JAKE TAPPER: Well, Newark is a city that is hospitable to illegal immigrants. And of the six individuals who have been arrested for shooting the college students earlier this month, two of them are in this country illegally, one from Peru and one from Honduras. And one of them, Jose Carranza, actually had been arrested earlier this year twice for two different violent crimes.
So in Newark this weekend, you had a Republican Presidential candidate, Tom Tancredo from Colorado, come into the city and say that if it weren't for Newark's policy as a sanctuary city, the crimes would not have happened. That's something that has now apparently changed, and Newark police are now going to ask for the immigration status of individuals when they arrest them. BOB GARFIELD: Is Jose Carranza going to be the Willie Horton of 2007? JAKE TAPPER: That's an excellent question. I don't know. I would not be surprised. BOB GARFIELD: Well, Jake, thanks for joining us. JAKE TAPPER: It's my pleasure, Bob. Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Jake Tapper is a senior political correspondent for ABC News. Geoffrey Nunberg is a linguist at the University of California at Berkeley. He remembers a time when "sanctuary" wasn't an epithet. GEOFFREY NUNBERG: Well, the word comes from a Latin word that means a sacred place. And in the Middle Ages, certain criminals and debtors were immune from arrest or persecution if they went into churches, and that's where the sense of sanctuary as a refuge comes in.
I think most people, if they think of that sense of the world - at least film buffs or people of a certain generation - recall the 1939 Hunchback of Notre Dame, where Charles Laughton is Quasimodo. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] Maureen O'Hara as Esmeralda is about to be hanged outside the cathedral. Laughton swings down on a rope, plucks her from the executioner. [CLIP/MUSIC] That's the sense the word still had in the early 1980s, when church groups originally led this movement to provide what they called sanctuary for refugees from the death squads in Guatemala and El Salvador, and then a number of cities declared themselves sanctuary cities in which those refugees would not be reported to the INS. BOB GARFIELD: But then at some point, the word was expropriated, mainly by the political right, and suddenly sanctuary, you know, had an altogether different cast to it. How did that happen? GEOFFREY NUNBERG: Well, sometime around 2005, 2006, you begin to hear people on the right using the word, not for these cities and movements that aimed at providing specifically political asylum, but rather to cities that said, look, we just don't think it's our business to have our local officials helping the INS.
We don't want to discourage witnesses from coming forth in criminal cases. We don't want to discourage parents from bringing their children to emergency rooms. We don't want to discourage children from coming to school.
So using sanctuary to describe these cities would be sort of like saying that the military, because of its don't-ask-don't-tell policy, has become a sanctuary for homosexuals [BOB LAUGHS]because you're not supposed to be there but we're not going to ask whether that's what you're doing or not. BOB GARFIELD: Mitt Romney has seized on this word "sanctuary." Do you think sanctuary is the word that he's actually trying to communicate or is he trying to use it as a kind of a code for something even more offensive to conservatives? GEOFFREY NUNBERG: Well, I think sanctuary is very closely related to amnesty. It evokes that word "illegal," which is used as a noun only to describe people's immigration status. You don't say that Jack Abramoff was an illegal because he lobbied illegally, for example.
And, in fact, the word "illegal" has always been used in just that way. It was first introduced in the English language by the British in the 1930s and early '40s to describe Jews who illegally emigrated to Palestine. BOB GARFIELD: You know, so if you kind of do the arithmetic in your mind's eye with the vocabulary, you've gone from good thing, sanctuary, to kind of bad thing, sanctuary, to even worse thing - amnesty to lawlessness and chaos and illegal aliens, I don't know, attacking our children. GEOFFREY NUNBERG: Exactly. And one of the interesting things about the Romney ad is that he mentions cities in blue states - New York and Newark, San Francisco, but not cities in red states, like Oklahoma City, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, that have similar policies, either officially or unofficially, but which wouldn't fit that picture of Eastern liberal elite permissiveness and coddling of criminals that the word "sanctuary" is supposed to evoke. BOB GARFIELD: Well, Geoff, as always, thank you so much. GEOFFREY NUNBERG: Thanks so much for having me. BOB GARFIELD: Geoffrey Nunberg is a linguist at the University of California at Berkeley. His last book is titled Talking Right.