Feb. 15 2017 12:39 AM

Lansing is finding out in sanctuary city debate

Matt Krol, from the Genessee County Volunteer Militia, came to Lansing Monday to "keep the peace," in the event a controversial resolution to declare the capital a sanctuary city resulted in civil unrest.
Todd Heywood/City Pulse
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, Shakespeare wrote. And that may be the case in Lansing in the debate over whether the city should declare itself a sanctuary city.

“We don’t believe it matters what term of art is used to describe a city’s posture toward immigrants and refugees and we are not aware of any legally binding definition of a ‘sanctuary city,’” said Randy Hannan, chief of staff for Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero.

“What matters is our policies and practices, and Mayor Bernero has been very clear that our police department does not and will not ask about immigration status in their encounters with Lansing residents, nor will we cooperate with state or federal authorities if they attempt to transform our police officers into immigration agents.”

In addition to the very specific statements from the Bernero administration on what their policy positions are, the City Council adopted a resolution in February 2004 that encouraged LPD to resist federalization as immigration agents. It was part of a broader debate over the PATRIOT Act.

Whether officially labeling Lansing a sanctuary city — which the mayor and most of the City Council is resisting — matters in the current climate is one of the unknowns. An executive order signed by President Donald Trump on Jan. 25 allows the federal government to assign that label.

“The Secretary [of Homeland Security] has the authority to designate, in his discretion and to the extent consistent with law, a jurisdiction as a sanctuary jurisdiction,” Trump’s order reads.

Potentially at stake is $6.5 million in federal funds, which the same executive order allows the government to withhold from “sanctuary jurisdictions.” That money would come from social service programming offered by the city and harm the very people the city is trying to protect, argue Councilmembers who oppose calling the city a “sanctuary.”

But some on the Council, like Kathie Dunbar, an at-large councilwoman, and Jessica Yorko, the city’s Fourth Ward representative, argue adopting the moniker is about sending a message.

“The sooner we learn to stand up for ourselves, the sooner the bully goes away,” argued Dunbar. “The threat to withhold funding from government units who refuse to comply with unconstitutional mandates is a bully tactic.”

Advocates want the Council to adopt a resolution that would mandate specific policy actions.

But adopting those specific mandates could run into legal issues, opponents argue, bolstered by a legal opinion by the city attorney.

“There’s a difference when you put pen to paper than a nonformalized practice or policy,” said Councilwoman Carol Wood.

Yorko introduced a series of amendments Monday night to a resolution that sanctuary city proponents called “weak.” Those amendments would “require” Lansing officials, officers and employees to refuse to ask or record information related to a person’s immigration status; not pursue, detain, question or arrest a person based solely on his or her immigration status; not assist immigration officers in pursuing, questioning or arresting a person based solely on immigration status; and refuse to provide access to court and jail records for the sole purpose of identifying undocumented immigrants.

That amendments failed, 4-3, with Tina Houghton joining Dunbar and Yorko in voting for them and with vacationing Councilwoman Jody Washington absent. The original “weak” resolution was tabled until officials from the City Attorney’s Office could do more research, including participate in a Tuesday call with lawyers from the ACLU.

Yorko’s amendments failed because of concerns that the word “require” would run afoul of city charter provisions creating a strict separation of powers between the city’s legislative, judicial and executive branches. The “weak” resolution was tabled for further consideration on Feb. 27.

City Attorney James Smiertka has argued, both in public statements as well as in a written memo to the Council, that the Council is prohibited from creating any policy because that is in the sole purview of the executive branch. As for police policy, the charter authorizes the Police Commission to adopt those policies in consultation with the police chief.

To assist in maintaining decorum at Council, audience members used cards while people testified Monday night regarding a controversial sanctuary city resolution. When audience members flashed the green side of the card at the Council, it meant they supported what was being said; when they flashed the red side it indicated opposition.
Todd Heywood/City Pulse

All of this played out in front of one of the largest audiences the City Council has hosted in 20 years. Brian Jackson, the chief deputy city clerk, said at least 250 people attended the meeting, requiring the city to set up an overflow area in the lobby of City Hall. Those who could not fit in the chambers sat 10 floors below in the lobby, watching the proceedings live on the city’s cable channel.

In addition to the overflow crowd, a contingent of the Genesee County Volunteer Militia, acting on “intelligence,” were on hand to respond to “possible riots,” in the event the city rejected a resolution. They were decked out in camo and body armor and armed with AR-15s and side arms.

Diego Bonesatti, legal director at the immigrant rights advocacy group Michigan United, said Tuesday advocates may change their targeting and push the Lansing Police Commission to adopt the policy measures as formal police policy.

Dunbar said that to avoid the conflicts over separation of powers, she has begun conversations with the City Attorney’s Office about drafting an ordinance or ordinances that would specifically enshrine those policy ideas in law.

For Council President Patricia Spitzley the issue is being honest about the Council’s powers. She said passing the resolution and Yorko amendments Monday night would “not be real,” because the resolution would be unenforceable.

“It would be doing a disservice to the community and to advocates” if the Council passed anything like the Yorko amendments, she said Tuesday in an interview. “It would be paying lip service to the issue. And I won’t do that.”