Amherst, Northampton won’t back down on sanctuary city status despite DOJ funding threat

  • Attorney General Jeff Sessions, right, accompanied by White House press secretary Sean Spicer, left, talks to the media during the daily press briefing at the White House, Monday, March 27, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) Andrew Harnik

Staff Writer
Published: 3/27/2017 11:49:44 PM

Faced with another threat — this time from Attorney General Jeff Sessions — that cities and towns will have to comply with federal immigration law to continue receiving federal grants from the U. S. Department of Justice, officials in Northampton and Amherst say they won’t back down.

“Northampton is not going to suffer as a result of this saber rattling,” said City Council President William H. Dwight. “We can only suffer if we go back on our commitment to protect all citizens and residents.”

Dwight spoke hours after the strongly worded comments from Sessions, in which he called for an end to so-called sanctuaries that he argues are endangering lives and putting dangerous criminals back on the street. In addition to losing funding for future DOJ grants, Sessions warned sanctuary communities that they risk losing money already awarded.

Dwight said that the idea of crimes being disproportionately committed by undocumented immigrants is not a reality and is a view that panders to the worst instincts of Americans.

Mayor David Narkewicz said he will be interested in the legal reasoning that would mandate local police departments to comply with voluntary detainers from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, and whether states will push back.

“I wish the president, the attorney general and Congress would focus on the real issue, which is bipartisan immigration reform, rather than this continual obsession with so-called sanctuary cities,” Narkewicz said.

City Council Vice President Ryan O’Donnell calls Sessions’ comments “fear-mongering rhetoric” and “ideological bullying.”

“It’s kind of par for the course,” O’Donnell said. “They’re trying to get states, cities and towns to adopt their conservative agenda.”

In Amherst

Similar sentiments about Sessions’ comments were expressed in Amherst, where a formal sanctuary community bylaw will be taken up by Town Meeting next month.

“We are not shying away from our posture as a welcoming community,” said Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman.

In fact, Bockelman said being a sanctuary community, and building relationships between police and immigrants, has ensured that crimes will not only be reported, but have a better chance to be solved through cooperation of witnesses.

“Having good relations with the immigrant communities is important for our ability to protect the community of Amherst,” Bockelman said.

The bylaw, being endorsed by the Select Board, is written so that it complies with the federal law known as Section 1373, which focuses on the sharing of information related to a person’s citizenship and immigration status.

Sessions said refusal to help enforce immigration laws and comply with ICE detainer requests will jeopardize communities receiving some of the $4.1 billion in grants from the DOJ’s Office of Justice Programs and Community Oriented Policing Services.

“Failure to deport aliens who are convicted for criminal offenses puts whole communities at risk, especially immigrant communities in the very sanctuary jurisdiction that seek to protect the perpetrators,” Sessions said.

He cited a Department of Homeland Security report showing that in one week, there were more than 200 cases in which detainer requests were not honored in sanctuary communities for people charged or convicted of a serious crime.

Dwight said he doesn’t anticipate Northampton backing down from its commitment to be a welcoming place. The threats to cut various federal money could also backfire, Dwight said, with courts showing the limits of the president’s authority, just as Congress did last week on efforts to replace the Affordable Care Act.

And any cuts to federal money would make cities and towns less safe, O’Donnell said.

Bockelman said going after those who are making their home and earning a living in town “seems to be a low priority thing for the federal government to be pushing at this time.”

The comments from Sessions were criticized by others across the state, including U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who said such action would be unconstitutional and bad for Massachusetts, which relies on international travel to boost admissions at local colleges, pour money into tourism and support the state’s “innovation economy.”

Warren said that the Supreme Court has ruled the federal government cannot use the threat of withholding assets or access to federal money in one area to coerce behavior in another area.

Massachusetts Democratic Party Chair Gus Bickford said Democrats stand with sanctuary cities, which include Northampton, Cambridge and Somerville.

Cambridge Mayor Denise Simmons called the threat of withholding funds “punitive and heartless” and would not affect the city’s position.

“Cambridge continues to stand proud as an inclusive, diverse and welcoming community to all whom have come here to make a better life,” Simmons said in a statement.

Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone tweeted: “AG Sessions states, “Disregard for the law must end.” He’s right. He should start with the President and his administration.”

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who has promised to shelter immigrants at City Hall, if necessary, said “the threat of cutting federal funding from cities across the country that aim to foster trusting relationships between their law enforcement and the immigrant community is irresponsible and destructive.”

Boston Police Commissioner William Evans has said officers won’t arrest immigrants living in the U.S. illegally unless they are accused of committing violent crimes.

Material from the Associated Press and the State House News Service was used in this report.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at

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