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The Unwelcoming

City Council prepares to undo its rare moment of courage



The majority of the Lansing City Council appears hell bent on declaring us an Unwelcoming City tonight.

That’s not what they will say, but that’s the message they will send immigrants in Lansing and nationally when they vote, in all likelihood, to undeclare us a sanctuary city.

Not to mention make Lansing look ridiculous after making us a sanctuary city just a week ago.

Our little city looked courageous by overcoming its (largely unfounded) fear that we would lose $6.5 million in federal funding. Tonight it will look cowardly.

The real issue here is not what about money. Funding is a red herring.

It’s what powerful local business interests and constituents will do in retaliation if the Council sticks to its guns. Pull contributions. Vote for others. That sort of thing.

Tonight’s meeting is the work of Carol Wood and Judi Brown Clarke. Surprisingly, they voted last week to support the call for sanctuary city status. Until then, they’d indicated that being a “welcoming city” was enough. Too much funding was at risk, they contended.

What changed? It may have been the call the Lansing Police made to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office — ICE — about an undocumented immigrant driving on an expired license. A Mexican woman with no police record. A call that never would have been made had she been white. A call that could result in her deportation for a civil infraction.

It’s what prompted Mayor Virg Bernero to issue an executive order consistent with policies of other sanctuary cities. Up till then, the mayor had said it was enough to reiterate that Lansing was a Welcoming City. But obviously it wasn’t enough.

Wood and Brown Clarke joined Kathie Dunbar, Jessica Yorko and Tina Houghton in amending yet another planned reiteration of the Welcoming City Resolution to declare us a sanctuary city. Patricia Spitzley voted against the amendment, which passed 5-1, with sanctuary city opponents Jody Washington and Adam Hussain absent.

What changed since last week?

A combination of pressure from big business and constituents.

The Lansing and state chambers of commerce sent a letter calling for reconsideration. More like a demand letter.

The chambers argued that Lansing can ill afford losing $6.5 million.

But the likelihood of that is small.

First are serious legal questions about the constitutionality of Trump’s Jan. 25 executive order to withhold funds. Even if they can, that would be limited to grants for police enforcement, because the punishment has to fit the crime. The crime is not serving as an arm of ICE. Other federal funds to Lansing, largely for human services, can’t be touched. What can be? A guestimate of $3 million in police grants.

But even if Trump’s order is valid, it’s going to take a long court fight to decide that.

What’s the worst-case scenario? That some day the U.S. Supreme Court says Trump’s order is legal. Then whoever is mayor will say of course we must comply with a court ruling. No money lost.

That’s when we should decide not to be a sanctuary city, not tonight.

The chambers are smart enough to know this fight isn’t about money.

So what is it about?

Image. And politics.

They don’t want Lansing to be a sanctuary city because it might hurt business development. Remember, the chambers are big white, conservative clubs. They don’t want Lansing and the state capital known as being radical. Never mind that being a sanctuary city doesn’t hurt New York, Chicago and Los Angeles’ status as thriving commerce centers. It’s the same parochial view that is keeping us from embracing the next big, billion-dollar boon to Michigan’s economy, marijuana.

As for politics, chambers are dominated by Republicans. Chamber types more likely voted for Trump, “holding their nose” or otherwise.

And the chamber has particular sway over Brown Clarke right now. She’s desperate for a big endorsement in her race against state. Rep. Andy Schor for mayor. Switching her support on this issue could be calculated.

As for constituents, some sincerely but ignorantly fear losing federal funds. Others think we should deport people for civil infractions because they are undocumented immigrants, regardless of circumstances — such as families they’d leave behind and repressive regimes and violence they’d be sent back to. Others think we should support Trump — yes even in Lansing’s blue bubble. And others are, well, just bigots.

What can be done?

The only chance to undo this pending travesty is a mayoral veto. Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope says Bernero has the authority, and opponents lack the six votes to overturn it.

A long shot? Perhaps. But Bernero, who by not running for reelection threw off the political shackles, came around last week on principle. It could happen again.


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