Jan. 11 2017 11:53 AM

Lansing considers ‘sanctuary city’ status as Trump inaugural approaches

Activists lobbied City Council Monday to make Lansing a “sanctuary city” with local protection for undocumented immigrants.
Lawrence Cosentino/City Pulse

Monday night, a group of about 25 activists shrugged off a January cold snap to circle in front of City Hall in support of an idea that goes back to the Old Testament’s Book of Numbers.

They want Lansing to be a “sanctuary city.”

“Sanctuary” is not a legal term, but it has deep resonance in the immigrant community, especially after the November 2016 election of Donald Trump as president.

During the campaign, Trump promised to deport unspecified millions of undocumented immigrants, potentially uprooting longtime residents and workers and dividing families that have lived in the United States for decades.

Since the election, mayors across the country, from New York’s Bill de Blasio to Seattle’s Ed Murray, have affirmed their cities’ policies limiting local cooperation with federal immigration agents. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf proclaimed on Nov. 14 that the city would “proudly stand as a sanctuary city — protecting our residents from what we deem unjust federal immigration laws.”

Monday’s chilly marchers, many of them college students, joined established advocacy groups such as Lansing’s Cesar Chavez Committee, which have already lobbied Lansing’s City Council to embrace the sanctuary city label.

Guillermo Lopez, a Lansing School Board member and sanctuary city supporter, said fear is growing in the immigrant community since Trump’s election, and it’s time to act.

“We need Council and the administration to take a stand,” Lopez said.

The workload issue

“Sanctuary” meant many things in medieval times, from protection of non-combatants in wartime to shelter for accused criminals, usually in a church.

In the 21st century, sanctuary cities (or counties) protect undocumented immigrants by limiting local cooperation with federal immigration officials. Some big-city mayors, such as Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, have avoided the term as “ill-defined,” but others consider it a point of pride and a signal of welcome to immigrants and refugees.

In most sanctuary cities, police making a routine traffic stop or investigating a crime don’t ask about a person’s immigration status, nor do they notify Immigration and Customs Enforcement, better known as ICE, when an undocumented immigrant is about to be released from custody. In many cases, police in sanctuary cities will not honor a “detainer” from ICE asking jailers to hold a released prisoner for another 48 hours, unless the feds hand down a warrant or a court order.

Opponents say sanctuary city policies create havens for potential criminals. Supporters counter that such policies improve public safety, because they encourage people to report crimes and talk to the police without fear of being deported.

No one knows exactly how many undocumented immigrants live in the Lansing area. In 2012, Michigan had an estimated 120,000 undocumented immigrants, about 1.2 percent of the state’s population and 1.6 percent of its labor force, according to a November 2014 study by the Pew Hispanic Center. The same study estimated that 1.9 percent of Michigan students have undocumented immigrant parents.

Lopez said he has no idea how many children of undocumented parents are enrolled in Lansing schools.

“We don’t ask,” he said. “It’s not even part of the enrollment process.”

Depending on who is doing the counting, and by which criteria, anywhere from about 40 to 300 sanctuary cities already exist in the United States.

Many cities, including Lansing, already follow policies that shield undocumented immigrants from inquiry about their status. But they often do so quietly, without City Council resolutions or mayoral proclamations.

In Michigan, Ann Arbor and Detroit are widely considered sanctuary cities, although both cities selectively cooperate with ICE.

Lansing Police Chief Michael Yankowski said in an email Monday that Lansing police will continue to work with federal authorities “when requested to facilitate the apprehension of violent felons, regardless of their immigration status,” but police “will not be engaging in law enforcement activities solely based on somebody’s immigration status.”

Without referring directly to Inauguration Day, Yankowski used future tense when he said Lansing “will not be conducting sweeps that seek to find and deport undocumented immigrants.”

Speaking at public events such as the Nehemiah Public Assemblies held by Action of Greater Lansing, Yankowski has said that LPD does not, and will not, require or consider immigration status during routine traffic stops. Lansing officers are trained to accept the Matrícula Consular, or the Mexican Consular Identification Card, as an acceptable form of identification.

Ingham County Sheriff Scott Wriggelsworth talked about immigration enforcement more as a workload issue than as a question of principle.

“I’m guessing this is a topic now because of the next president,” he volunteered.

Detaining more people at the request of ICE, Wriggelsworth said, would amount to “asking more help from locals to do ICE work.” He said his office has no written policy on how much to cooperate with the feds.

“There’s certainly an agreement that ICE, sheriff’s offices, local law enforcement — we’re all on the same team,” Wriggelsworth said.

He expects his office to go on cooperating with ICE, but he didn’t rule out a change in policy if Trump ramps up deportations.

“After the new president takes office, if we start to get inundated with federal law enforcement requests (in) reference (to) ICE investigation, deportees and that kind of stuff, then we would have to sit as a command staff here and figure out where we go from there,” Wriggelsworth said. “If we were doing that full time, we would not be doing what we’re tasked here to do by the state Constitution, which is enforcing state law and housing state prisoners.”

The fear issue

Donald Trump’s election has raised the temperature in Lansing’s immigrant community.

“I know a lot of families who are illegal, who are living in the city, and they are scared,” Lansing construction worker Jaime Esquivel said. “If they go on the street, something is going to happen. They don’t want to be arrested, because most of them have kids.”

Esquivel, a member of the pro-sanctuary group Action of Greater Lansing, has lived in Lansing since 1992. He came to the U.S. with a work visa, but it expired before 2009, when he was arrested at the Canadian border for an immigration violation. He was working on the new entrance plaza to the Ambassador Bridge, got on the wrong exit and accidentally ended up at the checkpoint.

Esquivel got another work permit, but he’s still fighting deportation. His next hearing is scheduled for late 2019.

He has a 19-year-old son and two 12-year-old daughters.

“I want to continue providing for them,” he said. “Every day I am with fear. The prosecutor, he is watching me, to be sure that I am behaving (until) he can put his hands on me and remove me from the country, and I don’t want to leave. I’ve been in this country for more than half of my life.”

Last month, Guillermo Lopez, on behalf of Lansing’s Cesar Chavez Committee, sent a proposed sanctuary city resolution to the City Council. The resolution was first sent to the Council in 2009 but never acted upon.

Parts of the resolution read like a time capsule from different times. It calls on ICE to put a moratorium on enforcement actions until comprehensive immigration reform is passed by the U.S. Congress “so that the debate can be carried out in good faith rather than against a backdrop of fear, repression and intimidation.”

The chances of that happening were slim in 2009 and slimmer in Trump’s America.

“Children go to our schools, graduate, even go on to college, and ICE finds out they’re here,” Lopez said. “I know of situations where a parent has been separated from a family and the family struggles. The breadwinner is gone, and it’s inhumane.”

Seth Kalis, one of the activists who demonstrated at City Hall Monday, noted that President Barack Obama has already deported more people than any president in U.S. history.

“This apparatus is in place for these mass deportations, and turning that over to someone who has made it a political promise — it’s one of the easiest things he can do to make his supporters happy,” Kalis said. “I’m worried that we’re going to see people taken out of their homes, MSU students being kicked out of their apartments.”

The safety issue

In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Donald Trump said illegal immigrant families “are being released by the tens of thousands into our communities with no regard for the impact on public safety or resources.”

“My opponent wants sanctuary cities,” Trump said. “But where was sanctuary for Kate Steinle?”

Steinle’s fatal shooting in San Francisco ,on July 1, 2015, is frequently invoked by Trump and other sanctuary city opponents. Steinle’s alleged killer, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, is an undocumented immigrant who has been deported from the United States five times.

That April, Lopez had been freed from a San Francisco jail, where he was held on a marijuana charge. Federal immigration officials asked for notice of Lopez-Sanchez’s release, but San Francisco’s sheriff, in keeping with that city’s sanctuary city policy, did not give any, according to The New York Times. A 2013 San Francisco ordinance restricts police from cooperating with federal immigration agents without a court order or a warrant.

“We will end the sanctuary cities that have resulted in so many needless deaths,” Trump said. “(They) will not receive taxpayer dollars.”

Sanctuary city supporters counter that non-immigration offenses will still be prosecuted and punished. The idea that a person is more likely to commit a crime solely because of immigration status is repugnant to them. What is more, Lopez said a sanctuary resolution would buttress community policing efforts, build trust between cops and residents and help “people who are undocumented feel free to report a crime against them or their family.”

Even the Police Chief’s Guide to Immigration Issues, issued by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, warned in 2007 that “immigration enforcement by state and local police could have a chilling effect in immigrant communities and could limit cooperation with police by members of those communities.”

The money issue

Big-city mayors like de Blasio and Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel have publicly doubted that the Trump administration will follow through on its threat to pull federal funding from sanctuary cities, because there are so many of them and the administration has “bigger fish to fry,” in Emanuel’s words.

Court challenges may also complicate any crackdown on sanctuary policies. In October, a federal judge in Illinois ruled it unconstitutional for ICE to ask local police to detain suspected illegal immigrants on that suspicion alone. The ruling has been appealed, but similar challenges are likely, especially if Trump orders large-scale deportations.

Nevertheless, Trump and his newly named White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, have repeatedly threatened to cut off funding for sanctuary cities.

In July 2015, Michigan Sen. Majority Leader Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, introduced a bill to bar local units of government from enacting or enforcing sanctuary city laws. That bill will be picked up during the new session, a spokesman for Kowall said Monday.

Lansing would lose about 3 percent of its nearly $200 million annual budget if Trump follows through on his threat. Lansing Finance Director Angela Bennett said the city receives about $6.5 million in federal grants annually, about $1.7 million of which comes from the Homeland Security and Justice departments.

On “City Pulse Newsmakers” last week, Sarah Anthony, chair of the Ingham County Board of Commissioners, said the county got 7.4 percent of its budget from the federal government in 2016, including a refugee medical assistance program of about $400,000 she called “vulnerable” because of anti-immigrant rhetoric from Trump and his supporters.

Councilwoman Carol Wood said the federal share of Lansing’s budget is “very comparable” to Ingham County’s percentage.

“Community Development Block Grant dollars work with our most vulnerable populations, from emergency shelters to programs for rehabbing homes and things like that,” Wood said. She also cited Justice Department grants for emergency management and federal transportation money, which is not part of the city’s general fund but has a significant impact on roads.

“Is it our entire budget? No,” Wood said. “Would it impact services? Yes, it would.”

Jim DeLine, former budget control supervisor of the LPD and internal auditor for the Lansing City Council, said Lansing’s share of federal dollars is “much smaller” than that of Ingham County.

“All I can think of are grants, which would be very hard to renege on,” DeLine said.

Lansing gets most of its funding from income tax and property tax, neither of which are available to Ingham County, DeLine said.

Lopez said he’s talked with city officials who expressed worry about losing federal money, but that shouldn’t deter the administration from doing what he considers to be the right thing.

“The fear factor is something Trump has done very well,” Lopez said. “Lansing is such a multi-ethnic community, with a long history of welcoming all kinds of people. We should put people ahead of money.”

The legal issue

The sanctuary city resolution Lopez submitted to the Lansing City Council last month is the same one submitted in February 2009 by No Human Being is Illegal Network. City Attorney James Smiertka said Monday his office is still working on a “legal review.”

Wood said the Council asked for the review, in part, because of “some of the ramifications of some of the rhetoric we were hearing out there because of funding.”

Wood said Smiertka took a “brief look” at the resolution in 2015, and “a couple of things jumped out — a couple of paragraphs dealing with things you refuse to do that’s part of federal law.”

The draft language is specific. It would bar local officials from “assisting or voluntarily cooperating with investigation or arrest procedures, public or clandestine, relating to alleged violations of immigration laws.” It would also bar local officials from cooperating with ICE “to perform immigration law enforcement functions to identify, process and detain immigration offenders they encounter during their regular, daily, law-enforcement activity.”

Such provisions are the meat of the resolution, but they are also a source of “concern” for Wood.

“If we’re ordering an employee not to do something, and there are suits or charges brought by the federal government — there are complex issues in there,” Wood said.

For 4th Ward Councilwoman Jessica Yorko, a January 2015 incident at Lansing’s 54-A District Court at City Hall put the prospect of local ICE raids into sharp focus.

Carmen Benavides, wife of former Lansing mayor Tony Benavides, accompanied her neighbor, Argimiro Hernandez-Garcia, to Lansing’s 54-A District Court at City Hall, where he was going to pay a parking ticket. Without notifying court officials or City Hall, ICE agents slipped out of an elevator, asked Benavides to identify Hernandez-Garcia and began “screaming at his face from 3 inches away,” as Benavides recalled. “Then they started screaming at me,” she said. The agents arrested Hernandez-Garcia for alleged immigration violations.

“I was in shock, with tears in my eyes,” Benavides said. “How dare they come and treat us this way?” Even as a middle school principal for 14 years, she had never seen “drama” like this.

In early 2015, Benavides asked the City Council to look into a sanctuary city resolution. A’Lynne Boles was president of the Council at the time (and a former student of Benavides’ at Otto Middle School). Benavides said she was moved to contact the Council after watching a TV documentary on the Holocaust.

“It happened because nobody spoke up,” she said.

Boles formed an Ad Hoc Committee on Diversity and Inclusion and put the sanctuary city resolution on the Council’s agenda, according to Yorko, who sat on the committee for its first year.

“The charge of that committee was to explore and put forward a resolution on sanctuary cities,” Yorko said.

“That’s why the committee was formed.”

Since then, Lansing has taken other steps to distance itself from the anti-immigrant feeling expressed by many Americans. On Dec. 14, 2015, Lansing declared itself a “welcoming city” for refugees and immigrants, days after Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder asked for a “hold” on accepting refugees, reacting in part to terrorist attacks in Paris in November. The resolution, Yorko said, “was meant to be a counterpoint to the xenophobia that was bubbling up.”

But the term of the Ad Hoc Committee on Diversity and Inclusion lapsed at the end of 2016 without action on the sanctuary city resolution.

At Monday’s Council meeting, Wood said, a memo was drafted to be sent to “whoever the next president of Council is,” asking that the Sanctuary City resolution be referred to the Committee of the Whole.

Lopez said the Ad Hoc Committee on Diversity and Inclusion will continue to meet informally, as the Advocacy Committee on Diversity, and act in an advisory role to Council.

“The draft can change,” Lopez said. “Some areas might not have been feasible, but we need to know what those were.”

Wood said it will be up to the next Council president, whoever that is, to go over Smiertka’s legal review and decide what happens next.

Meanwhile, Yorko said that if ICE again takes enforcement action in Lansing, she at least wants the agency to work with local officials.

“We have conference rooms,” Yorko said. “We have a police station. We don’t want you coming and terrorizing our community.”

“I cherish the advantage of living with so many different kinds of people,” Benavides said. “I’ve had many dinners in the Polish Hall. Are you going to send immigration in there?”