Easthampton City Council unanimously passes ‘welcoming’ city ordinance

  • The Easthampton Municipal Building, at 50 Payson Ave. STAFF FILE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 7/11/2019 7:55:08 AM

EASTHAMPTON — The City Council unanimously passed an ordinance Wednesday night that formally prohibits city officials from arbitrarily reviewing a person’s immigration status unless required by law.

Named the Welcoming Community Trust Ordinance, the legislation was passed 7-0, with two councilors absent, in front of a full room of more than 50 people. There was no opposition voiced by any member of the public present at the meeting.

The ordinance was introduced in February by Councilors Margaret “Peg” Conniff and Homar Gomez. It mandates that city employees may not inquire about the immigration status of any member of the public unless required by law. It also requires officials to refuse to arrest a person based on a detainer warrant issued by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, provide an ICE office with information pertaining to those detained or act in place of ICE.

“The resources of Easthampton will not be voluntarily spent on the responsibilities of the federal government,” Conniff said at the meeting.

The council’s decision follows an ongoing trend in the region of municipalities implementing “wecloming community” policies. The Springfield City Council passed similar legislation last December, and the Greenfield City Council is expected to vote on a “safe city” ordinance next Wednesday.

In her explanation of the ordinance, Conniff said being an undocumented immigrant is a civil matter, not a criminal one. She said an ordinance like this protects undocumented immigrants from the fear that reporting a crime might mean their immigration status could be conveyed to ICE.

“If they’re able to do that freely, we become safer because those criminals can be apprehended,” she said. “As a result of that, we all can live in a safer city.”

But, she said, the ordinance did not mean that undocumented people who commit crimes won’t be held responsible.

“This ordinance will not protect anyone who has committed a crime, in any way,” she said.

In 2017, the city considered a controversial “sanctuary city” proposal that would have limited operations of the police department in regard to immigration enforcement. Former City Solicitor John Fitz-Gibbon said the city did not have the authority to control the processes of the police, and the council tabled the measure. The Police Department eventually adopted these policies on its own, but the ordinance codifies them into law.

This time, Conniff requested an opinion from current City Solicitor Mark Tanner, who provided legal rationale behind each pillar of the ordinance, which she explained at the meeting.

The ordinance also allows those who are undocumented to participate in programs that confer immigration benefits, such as the U Visa program, without worrying about their status being discovered by federal authorities, she said.

Gomez said the ordinance should remove any fear that undocumented immigrants might have about reporting crimes to the police.

“I believe that is how we make our city safer,” Gomez said.

Mayor Nicole LaChappelle urged councilors to vote in favor of the ordinance, noting that the debate a few years ago in the city allowed for more in-depth research to be made on the subject.

“This ordinance, I think, is a sound step, and a good way publicly to say that we are going to work on being welcoming,” she said. “It might not be comfortable conversations, and it might be scary, and it might feel threatening — but it’s a conversation that this city is not backing away from.”

Police Chief Robert Alberti also spoke at the meeting, where he said the police were focused on criminal law. Alberti said he was able to work with the council on the ordinance, as it “pretty much mirrors” his department’s current daily operations.

In addition to city officials, members of the Easthampton Community Coalition, the Resistance Center of Peace and Justice and the ACLU Immigration Protection Project worked to draft the ordinance.

Kae Collins, a member of the Easthampton Community Coalition, said at the meeting that she was proud to see the ordinance be considered by the council.

“The issues with immigration law in this country are not going to be solved in the City Council chambers of Easthampton, Massachusetts,” Collins said. “What we are asking to do here is spread the message that all members of our community are valuable.”

Bill Newman, director of the ACLU’s Western Massachusetts legal office, said at the meeting that the support of the community for the ordinance was “moving.”

“These are essential values. And for a community to come together and say, ‘They are our values and we are going to affirm them and we are going to live by them,’ I think, is a really extraordinary moment,” Newman said.

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.


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