2016-12-01 / Around Town

Leaders Look at Local Immigration

By Olga Enger

As the White House transitions to the administration under President elect Donald Trump, some Newport leaders are considering the implications to local immigrants.

“When you look at our community, we have a lot of undocumented workers,” said Councilor John Florez, who came to the country from Colombia as a young child. “They work in our favorite restaurants. I have talked to them and they are frightened.”

Immigration was at the forefront of the presidential campaign, when Trump vowed to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and deport undocumented immigrants.

Although some Newport City Councilors have expressed the desire to name Newport a sanctuary city, the concept has yet to be discussed formally.

There is not a neat definition for sanctuary city, but it tends to imply restrictions on local law enforcement’s level of cooperation with federal requests to hold undocumented immigrants for detention and turn them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. Across the country, those requests increased when the Obama administration extended a nationwide electronic fingerprinting system, which checks fingerprints against a Department of Homeland Security immigration database.

However, Newport police report they rarely receive federal requests to detain immigrants.

Despite the absence of a local policy, municipal resources don’t tend to enforce immigration law. For example, the Newport Police Department does not proactively seek out undocumented immigrants. Similarly, the school district does not require students to disclose their immigration status.

First Ward Councilor-elect Susan Taylor said a public discourse would force the question: “Should Newport protect local immigrants?”

The number of undocumented immigrants that live or work in Newport is unknown; however, most agree the population is substantial, based on the number of restaurants and seasonal employment.

“The concerns that I’ve heard expressed by so many police departments across the country is when they assist ICE in that mission, they harm their ability to perform effective police functions in the local community,” said Taylor, who is as an immigration attorney.

Not all councilors are supportive of a policy to protect immigrants.

“We had this discussion with a couple of people the other night, and I spoke with [City Manager Joseph] Nicholson,” said Third Ward Councilor Kathryn Leonard. “Newport is not going to get involved in something that hasn’t even happened yet.”

Other officials are concerned that shining a spotlight on Newport’s undocumented immigrant population could do harm if the goal is protecting immigrants from federal detection.

Los Angeles was the first municipality to pass a sanctuary city policy in 1979, to prevent police from inquiring about the immigration status of arrestees. Today, more than 500 communities maintain a policy limiting cooperation with immigration authorities, according to an estimate from the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.

In an August campaign speech, Trump promised to end sanctuary cities by blocking their federal funding.

“The term ‘sanctuary city’ is what scares people,” said Florez. “Some think if we did that, our funding could be impacted.”

Although there are no sanctuary cities in Rhode Island, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza recently made national headlines after he vowed to continue the city’s long-term policies of protecting immigrants, even if it puts federal monies at risk. Elorza, who is the child of undocumented Guatemalan immigrants, later clarified that Providence is not considered a sanctuary city.

In a widely circulated email, Thomas Hodgson, the sheriff of Bristol County, Mass. warned against Elorza’s comments and the risk of hindering local law enforcement. Hodgson claimed undocumented immigrants flock to Massachusetts because seven communities in the state have passed resolutions naming themselves a sanctuary city.

“As elected officials, we are sworn to protect our citizens and legal residents, and to enforce our laws,” said Hodgson. “Giving law enforcement less opportunities to cooperate with other agencies, effectively taking tools out of their toolboxes that could help to protect innocent victims from crime or victims of terrorist attacks, is unacceptable and in direct conflict with the duties and core values of public service.”

Churches across the country have also opened their doors as sanctuaries to those fearing deportation, many operating within the faith-based network known as the “sanctuary movement.”

Despite strong rhetoric used during the campaign, Trump’s immigration plans remain unclear.

In his first post-election interview with “60 Minutes,” Trump toned down his earlier words and said a deportation would be limited to 3 million immigrants with criminal records. However, Trump’s number far surpasses the 820,000 who have criminal convictions, according to the most recent publicly available information provided by the Department of Homeland Security. Of those convictions, an estimated 300,000 were for felonies.

Locally, councilors remain uncertain if they will introduce a sanctuary city resolution.

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