Michigan capital rescinds calling itself 'sanctuary city'

2017-04-13 14:09
Immigrants take a workshop to make a preparedness plan in case they are confronted by immigration officials. (David McNew, AFP)

Immigrants take a workshop to make a preparedness plan in case they are confronted by immigration officials. (David McNew, AFP)

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Lansing - Michigan's capital on Wednesday reversed a decision to call itself a "sanctuary city" that protects immigrants, bowing to pressure from a business community concerned that the term would draw unwanted attention to Lansing from President Donald Trump's administration and cost the city federal funding.

The City Council voted 5-2 to reverse course just nine days after unanimously deciding to call Lansing a sanctuary. The term "sanctuary city" has no legal definition and varies in application, but it generally refers to jurisdictions that do not cooperate with US immigration officials.

Under Lansing policy set out last week in an order from Mayor Virg Bernero that stays in effect, employees cannot ask about immigration status, except as required by US or Michigan law or a court order. Police also are prohibited from holding immigrants for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement unless federal authorities have a judicial warrant.

"It is not the two words that make this a sanctuary city. We have an executive order right now that protects folks and keeps them and their family intact," said Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar, who opposed dropping the term. The reversal sent a "really sad" message to the community, she said.

"It is a darn shame that after appearing to have a backbone and actually taking a stand on something that really matters, folks have decided to just throw it away," Dunbar said.

'Spineless'

The new vote followed 2½ hours of contentious public comment during which more than 70 people spoke for and against the measure. After the vote was taken, immigration advocates shouted "spineless" at the council members. Members of a pro-Trump group also attended and spoke.

Lansing resident Kathy Miles said the 115 000-resident city - the state's sixth-largest - should not declare itself a sanctuary for immigrants in the country illegally.

"How are we going to turn around and tell our citizens to obey our laws yet this portion of people don't have to obey our laws? You're causing chaos," she said.

But Elisabeth Anderson of Lansing urged the council to not "cave to fear" and let down "the most vulnerable of our citizens". She said there is no evidence that Trump will "come for Lansing" or that business interests will be hurt.

After last week's vote, council members received a letter from the Lansing Regional Chamber and Michigan Chamber of Commerce urging them to remove references to "sanctuary city" from its resolution.

The dispute over the term "sanctuary city" comes as an estimated 200 cities, including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, have declared such status to protect immigrants. They oppose Trump's crackdown on immigrants who are in the country illegally.

'Don't ask'

"The term 'sanctuary' in the resolution has become very problematic and distracting - so distracting in my opinion that's it's taken away from the intent of our resolution, which is to protect individuals," said Lansing councillor Judi Brown Clarke, who voted to rescind the measure. "It's basically a 'don't ask' policy."

Before last week, Lansing called itself a "welcoming city," rather than a "sanctuary city".

Trump has warned that sanctuary cities could lose federal money for refusing to co-operate with immigration authorities. The administration has started publishing weekly reports of local jurisdictions that are not co-operating with federal efforts to find and deport immigrants in the country illegally.

"Recent actions of City Council, whether intended or not, have placed an unnecessary target on the City of Lansing while jeopardising millions of dollars in federal funding that impacts the city budget," the business groups' letter says.

Of the five members who voted to void the resolution, three switched their stance while two others had missed the vote last week. Some said only the mayor can decide the city's status as a sanctuary. Other concerns included the potential loss of $6.5 million annually in federal funding and additional city legal fees.

Advocates defend sanctuary policies for fostering a climate in which immigrants without legal status are more willing to report crimes and co-operate with police.

The issue also has touched off debate in the Republican-controlled Michigan Legislature, which is considering banning local governments from enacting or enforcing rules that limit communication and cooperation with federal officials concerning people's immigration status.

Similar legislation died in the last session.

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