Amherst Select Board backs sanctuary initiative

  • Sanctuary community supporters hold signs at Monday’s Amherst Select Board meeting. GAZETTE STAFF/SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 21, 2017

AMHERST — The town’s top elected officials Monday endorsed the effort to make Amherst a sanctuary community where all immigrants, whether in the United States legally or not, receive protections to ensure their safety and well-being.

After two hours of discussion that led to elements of the proposed bylaw being refined, the Select Board unanimously recommended the petition that will come before Town Meeting next month.

If adopted, the bylaw would guide police interactions with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officials, limit information that can be collected about a person’s immigration status, and prohibit anyone affiliated with town government from being complicit with any type of Muslim registry.

Select Board member Andrew Steinberg said his family’s own history, with his parents arriving in the United States as refugees from Nazi Germany in 1937, means he doesn’t want to see people turn their backs on immigrants.

“Our history of not always being the welcoming country we wish we were has a history, and it’s always painful to see history repeating itself,” Steinberg said.

Board member James Wald agreed.

“The main thing is we’re on the same side,” Wald said. “We want to do goodwill for people who live in town and the country.”

But such a bylaw comes with risks, as the Trump administration has threatened to pull federal money from communities that declare themselves sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants.

Chairwoman Alisa Brewer said Amherst gets $1.5 million in federal funding that supports a range of town and social services, including domestic violence programs and programs that feed the hungry.

Supporters of the petition drafted by the Amherst Sanctuary Committee, which now has 1,150 signatures, packed the Town Room at Town Hall for the discussion, many holding signs featuring what has become the symbol of the sanctuary movement, a butterfly, while others donned a pair of butterfly wings. When the decision was made by the Select Board, there was loud applause and a roar of approval.

Federal entanglements

Even though the town’s attorneys are concerned with the bylaw, and suggested it should be a resolution instead, Harris Freeman, a Northampton resident who teaches law at Western New England University, said the bylaw is written in a such a way that the town will not lose federal funds.

Freeman said local police have no role in immigration policy and the bylaw doesn’t interfere with federal law, stating only that the town will not collect any immigration information it would have to turn over to ICE. He calls the bylaw a “don’t ask, we have nothing to tell” policy.

Human Rights Commission Chairman Matthew Charity said his commission supports the bylaw because it recognizes an expansion of rights to people based on their country of origin.

“We felt comfortable recognizing the good that the bylaw might do in voting our approval of the bylaw,” Charity said.

Retired Fort River School principal Russell Vernon-Jones said the bylaw will make Amherst a safer town, noting that some undocumented immigrants are fearful about reporting crimes.

“It makes no change and imposes no limitation on the Amherst Police Department fighting crime in our town,” Vernon-Jones said.

Police Chief Scott Livingstone said a lot of the bylaw’s elements are already embedded in department policies.

“Overall, everything I’ve read from the bylaw draft and conversations I’ve had with the HR (Human Rights) Commission, no major concerns,” Livingstone said.

But he did express reservations at one section of the bylaw that appeared to impose a mandate on how officers deal with those stopped for minor motor vehicle offenses.

Livingstone cautioned that as more restrictions are placed on his officers, there is a potential threat from litigation.

Lead petitioner Caroline Murray said she was willing to change the language to offer more flexibility to police officers handling traffic stops, and assured the Select Board that dialogue will continue when the bylaw is implemented.

Welcoming community

All residents who spoke endorsed the measure.

With family members who are both legal immigrants and are in the United States undocumented, making Amherst a sanctuary community is vital for Angelica Bernal, who teaches political science at the University of Massachusetts.

“I am somebody who has been the beneficiary of all the great policies of this country, and I think it’s really urgent and important for us to keep this a welcoming community so other people like myself can continue to be a beneficiary of these policies,” Bernal said.

Thomas Roeper, a UMass linguistics professor, said the bylaw needs to be considered the first step in not fingerprinting people and letting them fall into the hands of ICE.

The measure was also endorsed by Vanessa Cardinale, pastor of South Congregational Church, who described living in an unprecedented era in which cities and towns have to protect people.

“I believe this is a time where we can stand up for our values,” Cardinale said.

Sid Ferreira, a member of the Amherst Sanctuary Committee, said he was appealing to the Select Board’s humanity.

“These are neighbors, these are friends,” Ferreira said. “I guarantee everyone in this place knows someone who is undocumented in Amherst or in the surrounding communities.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.