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When Rudy Giuliani sided with New York’s immigrants

As mayor, he repeatedly and publicly credited them for helping New York. Not so much today.

As New York City's mayor in the 1990s,

As New York City's mayor in the 1990s, Rudy Giuliani launched a national campaign to fight anti-immigrant legislation. Photo Credit: Bloomberg / Al Drago

As President Donald Trump ratchets up his attack on immigrants — proposing to deny them due-process rights required by the Constitution — it’s worth recalling what his most high-profile personal lawyer once said about immigration.

As New York City’s mayor in the 1990s, Rudy Giuliani launched a national campaign to fight anti-immigrant legislation. He often reminded Americans about the great good that immigration has done, not just for the city but also the country. He warned against those who prey on the most vulnerable, especially after it was learned that 40 deaf Mexican immigrants had been forced to sell trinkets on the subway and live in cramped apartments.

Exhibit A in his case is the city itself. Giuliani was never a great one about sharing credit for its rebirth, but in a 1998 speech at Harvard University he credited immigrants with reviving many of the city’s neighborhoods.

He recalled visiting Flushing, Queens, nine years earlier, sadly observing a community in economic distress. Then came a wave of Asian migration. “Today it’s a very different story. Stores are occupied. The streets are crowded, teeming with activity,” he said. “There are new restaurants, new businesses, new manufacturing, even a new hotel. This economic renaissance did not come from government subsidies. It came from the hard work of people striving to build better lives.”

This is true in many of the city’s neighborhoods, as he noted.

Giuliani was then articulating a GOP pro-immigrant position: immigrants were more entrepreneurial and less likely to be on public assistance than native New Yorkers. “They are creators of wealth,” he said. “They pay their own way.”

Today, that is a position in need of a spokesperson.

That won’t be Giuliani. It’s possible he has tried, quietly, to soften Trump’s immigration stance. But the record shows he enabled him, telling Trump he could get his “Muslim ban” by coming up with “the right way to do it legally,” a remark that occupied both the majority and dissenting opinions in the Supreme Court’s decision Tuesday to uphold the travel ban.

Once the stern image of enforcement, Giuliani has encouraged Trump in his bombastic contempt for the judicial process and adopted an angry, over-the-top public style that complements Trump’s.

And yet, the 1990s Giuliani was sincere in his glowing portrayal of immigrants, including those who were here illegally.

Yes, it was good politics for a New York mayor to praise immigrants. Shunning them would be a fatal political blunder — like the one that finished off Mayor Abraham Hewitt in the 1888 election. He lost the Irish vote after he refused to attend the St. Patrick’s Day Parade or fly the Irish flag at City Hall on March 17. And yes, Giuliani eventually coveted Latino votes.

But, as a Rudy-watcher — I also covered him while he was U.S. attorney in Manhattan before becoming a City Hall reporter — my sense is that he was distressed by the federal crackdown on immigration and its consequences for New York City.

Giuliani hardened his position on immigration as a presidential candidate in 2007, at one point considered the front-runner for the 2008 Republican nomination. But still, he was a moderate on the issue, probably among the reasons he failed to gain traction with Republicans nationally.

As mayor, he sued to defend his own executive order barring city agencies from handing over the names of immigrants here illegally to federal authorities. And, as I wrote in a 1996 Newsday story, he warned that the federal immigration authorities “will do nothing with those names but terrorize people.”

Today, his friend and client Trump is showing just how harsh those 1990s laws can be.

Paul Moses is a former Newsday reporter and editor. He is the author, most recently, of “An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians.”

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