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Ford Hall Forum: the value and future of Sanctuary Cities

Suffolk University’s popular Ford Hall Forum welcomed the public into Sargent Hall last Thursday to discuss the value of sanctuary cities in a country built on immigrants. Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone and New England Law professor and immigration lawyer Dina Haynes provided their expertise on the subject, moderated by Suffolk government professor Christina Kulich. This discussion comes a couple months after President Donald Trump issued an executive order cutting funding to sanctuary cities who did not comply with the federal government.

Although there’s no official definition of “sanctuary city,” the term has come to refer to a community with policies in place to make all citizens feel comfortable interacting with the police force. In a sanctuary city, even those without documentation can feel safe approaching police if they’re the victim of a crime.

In the late 1980s, activists, religious officials, and police came together to advocate for this policy in Somerville, eventually creating the policy that welcomes immigrants to the community today. According to Haynes, there are around 400 municipalities in the US with sanctuary policies.

“It’s about promoting public safety,” said Mayor Curtatone. “It’s also about our values as a progressive community… we want a society and a country that is tolerant.”

If one member of the family is at risk of deportation, the rest of the family will fear approaching police, creating a “ripple effect,” said Haynes. If community members are too fearful to report crimes, the community as a whole suffers.

Both Haynes and Curtatone advocated for the police’s role in creating a welcoming community. Sanctuary city or not, police should be aware of racial profiling and the trust they do or don’t hold in the community.

“What really makes an impact is what police are doing on the ground,” said Haynes, citing a situation in a Pennsylvanian town where nearly all immigrant families left after an anti-immigration law was passed, hurting the economy and negatively impacting the community as a whole.

Immigrants are a large part of “the economic engine of our country,” said Mayor Curtatone, saying it’s a “sad commentary” that immigrants are expected to take the worst jobs, and then become the scapegoat of society. “We want so much of the same thing.”

In order for sanctuary policy to work, it has to be embedded in the city’s culture, said Mayor Curtatone, “We want to bring along hearts and minds, and that takes time.”

Many opponents to sanctuary cities sight frustration with immigrants not paying taxes, but this rhetoric is false. Immigrants pay property tax every time they pay rent, and gas tax every time they stop by the gas station. Many file their taxes just like every American citizen.

“Those people all pay in, and they do not draw,” said Haynes.

“Don’t let the lie become the truth when we talk about the value of sanctuary cities,” said Mayor Curtatone. “Our core values as an American society are at risk here.”

President Trump’s executive order targeting sanctuary cities prompted many communities to file complaints. Mayor Curtatone said Somerville may lose some money through grants for maintaining their sanctuary city status, but the loss won’t affect public programs or safety.

According to Haynes, “the executive has already exceeded his authority” by signing this order; taking away city funding without notice is “like putting a gun to their head.”

Mayor Curtatone argued the order was ignoring the economic and safety benefits of sanctuary cities. “When policy doesn’t derive from valid evidence or facts, what’s driving it?” he asked. “It is a twisted ideology and it’s racism at its core… we need to call out racism and white nationalism when we see it.”

The federal government is asking cities to comply to their demands, but such requests include holding detainees for more than the constitutionally allowed 48 hours, waiting for the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This has led to costly lawsuits, said Haynes.

“We need to put a human face on what’s at stake here,” said Mayor Curtatone, noting that legislators are more likely to vote in favor of immigrants if they know they personal lives their decisions will be affecting.

“I think in the short term resisting is really important,” said Haynes. “I think it’s the right thing to do and I think it’s the winning choice to make.”

When the floor was opened for questions, the majority of listeners asked for advice on how to implement sanctuary policies in their own towns. One listener, however, was furious with what he heard, calling the panel “one-sided,” saying “it’s a lie” that immigrants pay taxes, and saying immigration is “harming American workers.” The listener was particularly upset with the idea of immigration law being different in each city, instead of being federally mandated.

Haynes and Mayor Curtatone handled the accusations calmly. “We are not rewriting federal law in Somerville, if fact we are following the law to the T,” said Curtatone.

As for the other questions, Mayor Curtatone advised citizens to go back to grassroots organization. “Every state senator, every rep, needs to hear that message,” he said. “Arm yourselves with facts and information.”

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