When we first moved to Amherst nearly 11 years ago, we held an “open house” party and invited our nearby neighbors. More than 10 people came. But hands down, the most welcoming family was from the house to our right – an Iraqi immigrant couple with two teenage daughters. The girls had baked us a delicious homemade cake. We became friendly with the family, and were sad when they moved to a state with a bigger Iraqi community where they could be near relatives and friends.
My friendly former neighbors from Iraq (a nation the U.S. has invaded twice in my lifetime) come to mind when I think about the word “welcoming.” The term came up several times at the Amherst Select Board meeting on Monday night, which was jammed by about 100 people, including many “Sanctuary Community” supporters.
“It is urgent and important to keep this a welcoming community,” said Angelica Bernal, an assistant police science professor at UMass-Amherst. Bernal said she has close ties to undocumented immigrants, and the bylaw is not just a nice symbolic gesture, but a measure that could save people from deportation, potential violence and even death.
During two hours of discussion on the Sanctuary Community bylaw designed to protect immigrants, I pondered the idea of being welcoming. Does it mean a brief nod or small wave? Shoveling a few feet of your neighbor’s sidewalk? Or can it -should it – rise to the level of towns trying to protect everyone, including those just passing through, from possible overreach by federal law enforcement?
As some noted on Monday, executive orders issued by President Trump, including on travel from foreign countries, have at times been so broad and in conflict with standing statutes that were swiftly thwarted by legal challenges.
“We need to pass this resolution, and it may be a dress rehearsal for what happens in the future,” said Tom Roeper, a UMass linguistics professor. “The government is not necessarily functioning legally, and we need to be ready for the next step.”
Trump has threatened to cancel all federal funding to “sanctuary cities,” and Select Board Chairwoman Alissa Brewer noted the federal funds Amherst receives total about $1.5 million per year. Although Brewer and others expressed strong support for the bylaw, it was noted that the measure is not without risk. “That is $1.5 million that we are spending … for people most in need,” Brewer said. She and Select Board member Constance Kruger said the funds predominantly go to aid low-income individuals and families.
The Select Board voted unanimously to recommend that Amherst Town Meeting approve the Sanctuary Community bylaw, contingent upon slight modifications to the proposed language to be made by motion. If passed by Town Meeting, the bylaw would:
- Prohibit any town employee from cooperating with a federal program requiring registration of individuals based on national origin, religion, citizenship, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or age
- Block Amherst police from federal enforcement activities based solely on perceived immigration status, including investigations, raids, arrests or detentions. (However, the bylaw would not prevent any arrests in the course of a criminal investigation or prosecution.)
- To the extent permissible by law, block Amherst police officers from formally or informally performing the functions of an immigration officer
Amherst police have said it is their practice not to question crime suspects or victims about their immigration status.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, WGBH reported that the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division released a report on local law enforcement agencies which didn’t comply with official ICE requests for “detainers.” The orders require police to hold or transfer people in custody, for immigration enforcement action. The article and related documents are available here:
The 96 cities, towns, counties, and agencies named in the ICE report included Amherst, Northampton, Cambridge, Somerville and Boston, according to WGBH. Questions remain about what it means for a community to be on that list, or why Amherst was identified.
Caroline Murray, who led the Amherst Sanctuary petition drive, and others warned Monday that towns must resist pressures to comply with unjust interpretation of immigration law, and that lives are at stake. “Deportation for many people means death,” she said.