As the administration of President Donald J. Trump calls for a crackdown on undocumented immigrants and cuts to arts funding, The Town of Amherst moved in its own direction last night (May 8.) Town Meeting put in place a bylaw to protect immigrants from discrimination and certain deportation measures, and voted for ongoing public art installations and performances.
On Wednesday, Town Meeting will vote on whether to call for an investigation and possible impeachment of Trump. A proposed resolution states that “from the moment he took office” Trump was in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s clause which prohibits officeholders from accepting gifts, profits, salaries or fees, known as “emoluments” from royalty or leaders of foreign nations.
Last night, substantial majorities approved a bylaw which will prevent Amherst officials from participating in creation of any “Muslim registry,” and also voted for a “Percent for Art” bylaw. The latter will take half of one percent of the town’s share of capital projects of $100,000 or more, and use those funds for permanent art installations and live performances.
The Sanctuary Community Bylaw passed with 165 Yes votes, 4 No votes, and 4 abstentions, while the Percent for Art measure had more detractors, passing with 110 Yes votes, 45 No votes, and 7 abstentions. (More on the Percent for Art further down in this article.)
The Sanctuary Community 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
This is a fact sheet about the Sanctuary Community bylaw: AmherstSanctuaryFact Sheetv4
The Sanctuary Community effort is one of many underway across the U.S. Locally, it was supported by the Coming Together: Understanding Racism program, at http://www.coming-together.org/what-can-we-do-to-dismantle-racism/amherst-sanctuary-city-campaign/
Amherst police have said they generally do not question crime suspects or victims about their immigration status.
“This has been a really broad and beautiful community effort,” said Caroline Murray, the Sanctuary Community organizer, noting that 1,285 people signed a petition in favor of it.
Murray told Town Meeting that the “definition of a crime” has expanded under Trump, while significant new hiring of customs enforcement and border patrol agents is underway.
Although U.S. Attorney General Jefferson B. Sessions has threatened to withdraw federal funding from “sanctuary cities,” Murray cited a contradictory finding by U.S. District Court Judge William H. Orrick in San Francisco last month. Orrick ruled that Trump overstepped his powers in January, with an executive order linking immigration enforcement and federal funding. A New York Times article about the ruling is here: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/25/us/judge-blocks-trump-sanctuary-cities.html
Amherst now receives about $1.5 million in federal funds, but the Select Board voted unanimously in favor of the Sanctuary Community bylaw. Member Constance Kruger told Town Meeting she is “relatively confident” the courts will uphold Amherst’s rights to the funds if the executive branch attempts a crackdown.
Much discussion focused on a section of the Sanctuary Community bylaw involving unlicensed drivers stopped for motor vehicle violations. There was debate about whether the bylaw should say that police “shall” or “may” give unlicensed drivers a “reasonable opportunity” to arrange for a licensed driver, regardless of immigration status. Ultimately, the resolution passed with the word “may,” in keeping with Murray’s amendment of the warrant article.
Amherst Police Chief Scott Livingstone requested the word “may” to give police officers more discretion in dealing with unlicensed operators, and to insulate the town from potential lawsuits, he said.
The Sanctuary Community bylaw strengthens a similar, non-binding resolution adopted in 2009.
Few spoke against the measure, although attorney Peter Vickery of Precinct 2 said it is inappropriate for a town to make its own rules regarding federal deportation warrants. “That is doing more than not helping, that is actively interfering,” Vickery said.
In March, the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division released a report naming Amherst among local law enforcement agencies which didn’t comply with official requests for “detainers.” Those are orders requiring police to hold or transfer persons in custody for immigration enforcement actions. (A related WGBH article is here: http://news.wgbh.org/2017/03/21/local-news/nine-new-england-communities-labeled-uncooperative-ice)
Livingstone said last night that his department has only received one detainer request from ICE in his eight years as chief. He was asked how the department will handle such requests going forward, and said it will depend on the circumstances. (A link to ICE’s detainer policy is here: https://www.ice.gov/detainer-policy)
Northampton lawyer Harris Freeman is involved in the sanctuary cities effort and spoke in favor of Amherst’s bylaw. “There is nothing in the constitution … that requires local communities to participate in federal immigration law enforcement,” he said.
The Facebook group called Defend, Resist, Build, which supported Amherst’s Sanctuary Community effort, is at this link: https://www.facebook.com/groups/693716877471989/
Percent for Art: Valuing Amherst’s Streetscapes
Amherst will become just the second municipality in Massachusetts, after Cambridge, to have a permanent public art funding mechanism, said Eric Broudy of the Amherst Public Art Commission https://www.amherstma.gov/1212/Public-Art-Commission. The commission’s next meeting will be May 18 from 12 to 2 p.m. at Town Hall.
Cambridge has had a dedicated funding stream for public art since 1979, Broudy said.
Broudy, a photographer who brought a similar warrant article to Amherst Town Meeting last year, seeking a full one percent, said there are 90 cities and towns across the nation which have public art funding bylaws. Amherst, he said, takes pride in having “interesting streetscapes.” An explanation of the bylaw’s goals can be seen here: http://www.amherstma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/38440
Alan Root of Precinct 5 said that many European cities put a large share of public construction funds into art. The Percent for Art would be “an amazing investment,” in the town, which Root said is “getting dingy.”
Several other Town Meeting members argued that Amherst’s budget is too tight to have a permanent, dedicated funding stream just for art.
“This is a surcharge on every project,” said Tim Neale of Precinct 4, who is also a member of the Finance Committee. Neale urged Town Meeting to be mindful of residents on fixed incomes who cannot afford a tax increase. The Finance Committee voted 6 to 1 against the article.
However, Broudy said the individual impact on taxpayers will only be “about as much as a cup of coffee” each year. If the town ultimately funds $17 million in renovations to the Jones Library, he said, the half of one percent would equal $85,000, or 80 cents per taxpayer annually. Other pending capital projects include renovation or replacement of the Wildwood and Fort River Schools, a new Fire Station, and a new Department of Public Works facility.
Jim Wald of the Select Board said his board voted 4 to 1 in support of the article, which he said reflects Amherst’s values and “commitment to the enhancement of public life.” People come to Amherst, Wald said, “because they find something vibrant about our downtown.”
Kay Moran of Precinct 4 said the bylaw will result in trade-offs, taking needed public project funds, while Jennifer Page of of Precinct 8 took a different view. “Art is what makes life worth living,” she said. “All of us can use more inspiration and beauty in our lives.”
Below is an example of one of Cambridge’s recent public art installations, commissioned for the new Martin Luther King, Jr. and Putnam Avenue Upper Schools. “Light Shadow: MLK” by Christopher Janney is a 7-foot x 32-foot “urban musical instrument” designed to engage the school community in playful exploration. A computer model will allow students to reprogram the wall with their own light and soundscapes. (This is a link to Cambridge’s Percent for Art website. https://www.cambridgema.gov/arts/publicart/percentforart)