Story behind the story

How we became Michigan’s first sanctuary city

Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar, who led the successful campaign to name Lansing a sanctuary city, listens as Mayor Virg Bernero makes a point at Monday historic City Council meeting.
Left: Todd Heywood/City Pulse; Right: Photo by Theresa Rosado

On March 20, a 36-year-old undocumented woman from Mexico was pulled over by Lansing Police Officer Matthew Meaton for improper lane use. He asked for her driver’s license. She produced an expired one. Her asked her if it was a fake, which is a crime. Misunderstanding the question because of the language barrier, she said yes.

She was arrested and taken to the Lansing City Jail. As part of standard booking procedures, officers there checked “law enforcement resources.” When those failed to return any information on the woman, they called the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — ICE.

“He told me they didn’t know what else to do, so they called ICE,” said Oscar Castaneda, operations manager and organizer for Action of Greater Lansing, a nonprofit coalition of 16 faith communities in the Lansing area. He was contacted by the woman’s family to assist in bailing her out and was present at the Lansing jail, meeting with officers on behalf of the family.

“They thought that was a good resource,” Lansing Police Chief Michael Yankowski said in confirming the call.

That phone call to immigration officials by the Lansing officer set off a chain of events that led to a new mayoral policy on how city authorities are to deal with undocumented immigrants and ultimately, on Monday night, to the City Council’s historic and surprising decision to declare Lansing a sanctuary city — the first clear-cut sanctuary city in Michigan: The Council did so in unequivocal terms:

“The Lansing City Council declares itself a Sanctuary City according to the Mayor's April 3, 2017 Executive Order and this Resolution.”

The resolution also commits the city, “when possible,” to “developing policies protecting vulnerable populations whose rights may be abrogated and interests harmed by those hostile to maintaining or expanding protections to these communities and who would unconstitutionally and illegally misuse the power of the federal government to do so.”

After wrangling over the issue since Donald Trump was elected president, the Council voted 6-0 to take the step, setting aside concerns about the threat of losing an estimated $6.5 million annually in federal funds.

Castaneda said the woman’s story was “absolutely” behind the mayor’s executive order.

City Pulse promised its sources not to identify the woman. She declined to be interviewed because she feared doing so would anger ICE officials. Her story has been pieced together with interviews with those who came to her aide when she was arrested, city officials and court records.

“I know it’s definitely a factor,” said Kathie Dunbar, Councilmember at-large and the leading voice for the declaration. She confirmed she raised the woman’s story with Mayor Virg Bernero. “He committed himself to making sure there were policies and procedures in place.”

Shortly after that meeting with Bernero, the executive order came.

“We are the first city in Michigan to do this,” Dunbar said of the sanctuary city declaration.

While those opposed to sanctuary city policies have claimed Detroit and Ann Arbor are sanctuary cities, leaders in both cities disagree. Detroit made the list of anti-sanctuary city activists because it passed a 2007 ordinance to prohibit law enforcement from inquiring about immigration status during investigations. Both Mayor Mike Duggan and Police Chief James Craig have said that ordinance does not violate a Trump administration executive order.

Ann Arbor got the label after it passed an “anti-profiling resolution” in 2003. That resolution was adopted in protest of the Patriot Act, a law passed in the wake of the 9-11 terror attacks.

By declaring itself a sanctuary city, and through Bernero’s executive order, Lansing’s new policy is that it will not detain people based on administrative immigration warrants — so- called retainer or detainer orders — and will not work to enforce immigration laws alone. The executive order, which was affirmed by the City Council resolution, also prohibits Lansing officials from contacting ICE, except when a person is allegedly involved in “a serious crime.”

A similar move by Baltimore landed that city on the Trump “sanctuary city” list last week. Inclusion on the list could lead to the loss of federal funding under a Jan. 25 executive order signed by President Donald Trump.

The Trump administration released a list of 150 jurisdictions nationwide late last week. That list includes states and cities that have announced they will not work with federal immigration officials to enforce immigration laws, although they would cooperate in other areas. Detroit, Ann Arbor and Lansing were not on the list.

But Lansing could be on the administration’s next list because of Bernero’s executive order, which prohibits Lansing Police from cooperating with or acting in their law enforcement role to “stop, pursue, interrogate, investigate, arrest or otherwise detain a person based solely on their immigration status or suspected violations of immigration law.”

While Councilmembers Dunbar, Tina Houghton and Jessica Yorko fought for sanctuary city status, others opposed it out of concern about the loss of federal funds, much of which aid lower-income and impoverished residents through a variety of programs. Led by Bernero, other Councilmembers sought to recommit Lansing to be a “welcoming city” under an earlier resolution and, they hoped, avoid punishment by the Trump administration for having “in effect a statute, policy, or practice that prevents or hinders the enforcement of Federal law.”

“I still have a concern regarding what that means to be a sanctuary city,” said Council President Patricia Spitzley, who cast the lone dissenting vote against amending the resolution to include a sanctuary city declaration Monday night. “My responsibility is not only to the residents, but it is also a fiscal responsibility. So, if there is any chance that by having the word sanctuary in our resolution it puts a spotlight on us, for me, I can’t in good conscience support that.”

However, she ultimately cast a vote in favor of the final resolution because it “was the right thing to do.”

3rd Ward Councilman Adam Hussain, who is on vacation, did not attend. 1st Ward Councilwoman Jody Washington left the meeting because of illness before the vote.

That didn’t stop her from condemning the passage.

“I don’t need this soapbox to stand on,” she said via Facebook messenger. “I am not up for reelection.”

Of the resolution’s supporters, Houghton and Dunbar are candidates this year and Judi Brown Clarke is giving up her seat to run for mayor, Yorko is not seeking reelection and Carol Wood is not up.

Andy Schor, a Democratic state lawmaker representing Lansing and a candidate for mayor, said he supported the executive order.

“While I have concerns about losing millions of federal dollars due to recent disappointing policies by the president, I support Lansing's policies specifying that our police will not act as immigration officials,” he said in a written statement. He said if elected mayor in November, he will review the “repercussions” resulting from the executive order and resolution before determining whether to continue Bernero’s order.

Brown Clarke, the only other declared candidate for mayor, issued a press release that sidestepped her vote to declare Lansing a sanctuary city. In it, she said she “reaffirms Lansing’s status as a ‘Welcoming City.’”

“As a city councilwoman, I am responsible for protecting our community and all who live in our great city,” she said. “It’s imperative our police officers serve in a position of trust, where public safety is the priority.

“As an elected official, I also serve as a steward of the city’s resources. If Lansing should face any financial sanctions from the federal government as a result of our renewed Welcoming City status, I am committed to doing my due diligence to fully protect the city, its residents and its resources.”

Bernero and Yankowski have regularly assured the Council and public that Lansing Police do not want to become immigration officers. That’s why the woman’s experience raised alarms among immigration activists.

“There was supposed to be a policy about that anyway,” said Spitzley when told of the case. She said the unnamed woman’s story was “unfortunate” and that she was “disgusted by it.” She hoped the new executive order would lead to more specific training on Lansing Police policy for officers.

The mayor reiterated that commitment Monday night in a press statement accompanying his executive order release.

“We do not want our local police to become de facto immigration agents,” Bernero said, “especially under the divisive and draconian direction of the Trump administration.”

He said he was “confident” the new policies “do not violate federal law.” He tempered that by noting he was prepared “to take legal action to protect the prerogatives and powers of local government and local law enforcement.”

With a clear set of directives from the mayor and supported by the Council, the focus is now on implementing them.

Yankowski said Tuesday morning that he had issued a memo to all LPD employees informing them that the executive was “effective immediately.” But he said there is still “research” to be done to codify those directives into clear policies and protocols.

“We have started a complete review of our policies,” he said in a phone interview. “We will have to determine what specific policies need to be created, and what protocols go with that. Once those are adopted it will also require additional training for officers so they know what those policies are.”

He conceded that the woman’s story has also resulted in a lesson learned. “If you don’t have the policy on paper, or clear, it leaves it up for interpretation.”

He said his focus, and that of his team, will be on “creating policy that is really focused on public safety.”

That review and policy process could result in additional language to Bernero’s executive order to “clarify” the directives.

Councilmembers and advocates said that while the declaration is an important move, there is more work to be done in finalizing internal policies and procedures. But right now they are taking a breather.

“I don’t know if I can sigh hard enough to tell you how relieved I am that there was a tangible, concrete policy action laid out at the end of this road,” said Dunbar. “It has been an exhausting 10-plus weeks.”

City Pulse asked all candidates for the Lansing City Council to comment on the Council’s decision to declare Lansing a sanctuary city. See their responses after 5 p.m. today at


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