2018-02-01 / Around Town

Jamestown Takes Local Action on Immigration

By Marianne Kelly

“This is not just a legal issue, it’s a moral issue,” said Carl Krueger as he addressed a packed room of concerned citizens at an immigration roundtable hosted by the Conanicut Sanctuary last Wednesday, January 24, at the Jamestown Library.

Krueger is a staff attorney with DORCAS International Institute of Rhode Island, an organization that provides educational support and related services to immigrants and refugees. He was joined by three other social justice panelists: Lt. Col. Joseph Philbin of the Rhode Island State Police, Rev. Dr. Don Anderson of the Council of Churches of Rhode Island, and Jeff Melish, an attorney with the Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Along with educating the crowd about current immigration policies, the panelists were there to explain and gather support for a model ACLU ordinance that would prevent local law enforcement from being deputized to enforce civil immigration law, a move that would also protect DACA recipients and other immigrants who have committed no crimes.

“Tonight, we host a distinguished panel of speakers who will educate us on what is happening in our country to immigrants and what is being done to protect them,” said organizer and moderator Helen O’Grady in her opening remarks. “It’s an opportunity for us to learn how we can respond as a concerned community.”

Among the attendees were community leaders and social activists from all over Rhode Island, including clergymen, law enforcement officers, local politicians such as state Senator Dawn Euer, attorneys, and RI citizens. While they shared their own perspectives, those in attendance were in agreement that the federal government’s current immigration plan will generate losses for the country, and that, additionally, it is unconstitutional.

“We know we need comprehensive immigration reform…” said the event invitation, “[h]owever, in the absence of federal and state legislation, local towns and municipalities must protect undocumented immigrants.”

The evening’s first speaker, Lt. Col. Philbin, said that ever since deportation threats have increased in the past year, law enforcement is seeing a drop in people coming forward when they are in danger or witness a crime, which creates a bigger public safety problem. “The bottom line is Rhode Island State Police are not in charge of enforcing immigration,” he said.

Philbin then explained that each state police organization writes up its own policies on immigration, which then have to be approved by the federal government. One of his goals in writing state policies, he said, is to make sure all citizens, undocumented or documented, know it is safe to come to the police without fear of deportation.

Krueger spoke next, saying, “I think you’re getting a little bit of a flavor of what is going on in this country now, with the federal attempts to coerce the local police departments to engage in the enforcement of federal immigration laws. Things have changed radically in the last year.”

During the Obama Administration, he said, “the deportation system was so overworked,” explaining that they had to prioritize cases and give some people provisional permission to stay in the U.S. so they could relieve the backlog. “This worked well. In fact, the Obama Administration deported more people than any other president in the history of the country. But there wasn’t this fear that there is now and has existed since about a year ago.

“It is very important…that you dispel a lot of the notions that are out there,” Krueger said. “Being unlawfully present in the United States is not a crime. And when people talk about illegal aliens, and the connotation is ‘criminal’ illegal aliens, this is part of what a certain segment of the population is trying to do. Demonizing, dehumanizing people…[it’s] therefore easier to mistreat in all sorts of ways.”

When the panel opened up the floor to questions, one local business owner spoke out. “This is also a labor issue,” pointing out how the loss of immigrant workers would negatively affect his business and many other businesses.

Activist Reverend Jim Keller encouraged everyone to continue educating people about the real reasons immigrants are here. For instance, he said, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) brought down the cost of corn to the point where millions of people who worked on farms in Mexico lost their jobs and could no longer feed their families, so they came across the border where there was work.

“Immigrants are all around us,” Kruger said. “They’re our neighbors, our kids’ classmates, our coworkers; they are renters, business owners, landlords and consumers. They contribute to our society as workers… and many are on payrolls generating taxes for our government… This is why we have to get these ordinances enacted,” he added. “If the federal government isn’t going to do it, we have to act on a state and local level.”

Attendee Mary Raymond of North Kingstown echoed the participants’ sentiments. “Breaking up families is not family values.”

For more information about the ACLU ordinance or to find out how to get involved, email conanicutsanctuary@gmail.com

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