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Threat of federal funding cuts for ‘sanctuary cities’ may hit home

  • Ana Ascencio, an Amherst College student, leads a chant during a student-organized walkout in November to protest the immigration policies proposed by then President-elect Donald Trump. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Umass students on their way to chancellor subbaswamy's office during a UMass student organized walkout, Nov. 16, protesting the immigration policies proposed by president elect Donald Trump.



Staff Writers
Thursday, January 26, 2017

NORTHAMPTON — President Donald Trump signed executive orders targeting sanctuary cities, undocumented immigrants and refugees on Wednesday, sending the nation — as well as the city of Northampton — scrambling to figure out what the new directives mean.

Following up on a campaign threat, one of the orders called for the stripping of federal dollars from so-called sanctuary cities. Some of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas — including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago — are considered sanctuary cities, as is Paradise City.

Amherst also may be considered a sanctuary city based on a resolution passed at Town Meeting in 2012, and Easthampton is considering the designation.

Northampton’s leaders greeted the news with confusion and disappointment on Wednesday.

“It’ll be interesting to see how that’s done,” Council President Bill Dwight said shortly after the announcement, adding the title of sanctuary city means different things to different communities. “What’s included? That remains to be seen. I don’t know how far these guys are prepared to go.”

The sanctuary city status stems from an executive order issued in 2014 by Mayor David Narkewicz, which states the city will not honor non-criminal administrative detainer requests filed by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

Narkewicz joined others in questioning the legality of such orders, which ask local police officers to seek out illegal immigrants and detain them. Many say the orders violate the Fourth Amendment.

Immigration law enforcement doesn’t fall under the jurisdiction of city officers and the city receives no funding to accomplish that enforcement, Narkewicz noted.

“The fundamental premise that the policy we’ve enacted is harboring fugitives from the law just doesn’t jibe with the reality of what our policy is,” he said, adding the Northampton Police Department always honors criminal detainer requests issued by federal agencies and courts.

“We’re going to be watching and listening and hoping to review whatever actual order is issued by the president and any of the subsequent steps that are taken.”

‘Idiotic fantasy’

Jeff Napolitano, director of the American Friends Service Committee of Western Massachusetts, said the order demonstrates Trump isn’t paying attention.

“I’m pretty sure Donald Trump himself doesn’t know what the hell a sanctuary city is,” he said. “The way he’s talked about it — criminals can run and hide and police departments protect them — that’s an idiotic fantasy, and unfortunately it’s one he’s been successful in perpetuating.”

Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman concurred that the announcement brings a lot of confusion and uncertainty.

“Some people will say we’re a sanctuary city, some will say we’re not,” Bockelman said. “What are you defining it as? If it means we welcome immigrants, we do.”

The Town Meeting action stated that Amherst would not participate in the Secure Communities Act, a Bush administration initiative that directed local law enforcement to cooperate with immigration authorities in identifying people who were in the country illegally.

But before Town Meeting took its vote, the warrant article was weakened from a bylaw to a resolution, in part amid concerns that federal grants that the town receives for alcohol enforcement, speeding enforcement and bicycle safety would be jeopardized.

Police Chief Scott Livingstone was one of those advocating for the non-binding resolution, saying he would prefer to decide whether to comply on a “case-by-case” basis should an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainer request be received.

In fact, Livingstone said Wednesday that Amherst is not a sanctuary city as defined by federal guidelines.

Civil rights

Napolitano said that because the order fails to define what a sanctuary city is in terms of administrative detainer requests, it won’t apply to any sanctuary cities that he knows of. Instead, the most impactful part of the measure was the push to turn local police officers into immigration agents.

“I think that’s maybe the most troubling part of this executive order — it’s that Trump is going to try to turn every cop into an immigration agent,” he said. “That means everybody will always have to have their papers on them, proving they’re a U.S. citizen.”

Easthampton City Councilor Jennifer Hayes, who brought the idea of the sanctuary city designation to City Council in December after she received an email with about 50 signatures in support of the measure, said she views Trump’s proposal as a civil rights violation.

“There are a lot of questions regarding whether or not federal funds could even be blocked,” she wrote in an email. “That would be for the courts to decide.”

City officials have received petitions and messages in support of and opposed to the move, and the measure is still under consideration in Ordinance Subcommitee.

Resident Donald Torrey collected over 250 signatures opposing the designation. He said the risk of losing federal funding is the exact reason he opposed the measure.

But Hayes said the president’s action does not change her support of Easthampton’s efforts to limit local enforcement of federal immigration law.

“The president is talking about our friends, co-workers and neighbors,” Hayes wrote. “We must defend refugees and undocumented immigrants.”

Embedded in law

As for rescinding federal funding, Narkewicz said he remains skeptical that Congress or the courts would allow that to happen. He said the roughly $3 million in federal funds that come to Northampton each year, like educational dollars, are ingrained in laws not easily undone by executive order.

“These are all programs that are embedded in federal laws,” he said. “The president can’t modify them with the stroke of a pen.”

Bockelman said he couldn’t estimate how much of Amherst’s operating budget depends on federal grants, but he said officials are aggressive at seeking these funding sources. Livingstone said his department gets well over $100,000 annually in federal grants.

Narkewicz said Congress won’t take cuts to funding for education, school lunch programs and affordable housing aid lightly.

“My suspicion is that members of Congress will want to take a more careful look at that,” he said. “It’s also funding that in most cases is specifically targeting toward serving vulnerable populations.”

Order on refugees

Narkewicz said the other order Trump issued on Wednesday was also cause for concern, as it could thwart Catholic Charities’ efforts to resettle refugees in Northampton. The order called for a temporary ban on incoming refugees from certain countries yet to be announced, as well as a reduction in the number of refugees allowed into the country.

Kathryn Buckley-Brawner, director of Catholic Charities, declined to comment Wednesday.

“What we’ve decided to do is withhold any comment until we see what the document is,” she said, adding she’s “tired of speculating.” “Let’s just hold our tongues to see what the actual event will produce. I’m still taking things with a grain of salt.”