Mayor Curtatone defends Somerville’s sanctuary city status at UMass panel

Somerville has been a sanctuary city since 1987, protecting undocumented immigrants from federal arrest, detainment and deportation, absent violent or serious crime.

Despite the risk of losing federal funding, Mayor Joseph Curtatone has repeatedly pledged to remain as such, many residents applauding his outspoken efforts.

Just last month, Indivisible Somerville organized a rally at the State House to push legislators to support a statewide Safe Communities Act, prohibiting religious registries, preventing local police resources from being used for federal immigration cases, etc.

But there are some who oppose sanctuary city status.

Just last month Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson suggested elected officials who refuse to cooperate with federal authorities in sanctuary cities be arrested, to which Curtatone responded, ”Come and get me.”

In a much-anticipated event, the two met face-to-face last Thursday at the University of Massachusetts Law School in Dartmouth.

Moderated by Editor-in-Chief of the UMass Law Review Ethan Dazelle, the “Breaking Down the Wall” symposium dove into immigration issues, including sanctuary cities. Newton Councilwoman Emily Norton and Massachusetts Immigration and Advocacy (MIRA) Coalition Federal Policy Director Sarang Sekhavat.

Unconstitutional vs. constitutional

Hodgson says elected and law enforcement officials must uphold their oaths to the community and protect people, including cooperating with federal immigration authorities in regards to undocumented immigrants. The country’s entire immigration process, he argues, needs to include serious vetting to ensure public safety.

“I’m as frustrated as anyone over immigration laws,” he said at the panel discussion. “But I’m keeping my promise to the people and I’m not going to defy my oath and be told that I should ignore an [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] notification … and commit a felony under federal law as a law enforcement person, and I don’t think anyone else should either.”

A lot of falsehoods circulate about sanctuary cities, said Curtatone. Some say they harbor violent criminals, which is not the case, he argued.

If ICE is looking for a dangerous person who happens to be undocumented, the City of Somerville works closely with them. But, he continued, they aren’t going to alert immigration officials of someone’s status as result of a minor crime, such as a broken taillight.

“We’re not targeting people based on suspicion of immigration status,” said Curtatone. “If you talk to [Police Chief David Fallon], he’ll tell you [community-based policing] is working. Everyone’s engagement in public safety is to make communities safer, and it’s working.”

Turning undocumented immigrants over to federal authorities when they pose no threat to public safety, argued the mayor, is unconstitutional.

But, said Hodgson, going against federal law is a felony, and failing to uphold the constitution is in itself unconstitutional.

“Local law enforcement cannot determine what the federal government’s decisions are,” he said. “If ICE expresses an interest in anyone, I would comply because that is the law.”

‘Lightning terms’

Throughout the panel, Norton asked Hodgson to stop referring to undocumented immigrants as “illegal,” explaining these people are human beings and deserve to be treated as such.

Hodgson insisted there is nothing wrong with the term illegal, because that’s what undocumented immigrants are.

“It’s a crime—no ifs, ands, or buts—to come across the border without going through the immigration process,” he said.

But, Norton argued, think about the reasons people are coming here. Some are fleeing their disruptive and dangerous homelands, seeking safety and refuge, to which Curtatone agreed.

“Life is not black and white, this issue is not black and white,” said Norton. “I would urge people to think about why people come here.”

The term “sanctuary cities,” said panelists, can emit emotionally-sparked response. That’s why, added Norton, Newton passed a “welcoming city” ordinance.

“‘Sanctuary’ means we are welcoming people in a different way than before, which in reality, nothing has changed,” said the councilwoman.

Sekhavat said there is no such a thing as a definition of a sanctuary city. Each city has different levels of participation, he said.

Sanctuary cities, added Curtatone, can vary from town to town. Take five sanctuary cities, he said, and compare their ordinances—they’ll be a little different every time.

“The value is what’s important,” he said.

Hodgson argued sanctuary cities attracted criminals from different countries, suggesting a more extreme vetting process would further protect the country from terrorist attacks like Sept. 11 and the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013.

“Where do you think people who want to commit terrorist attacks go?” asked the sheriff. “People are drawn to these cities, that’s what this is really about.”

Though Norton reminded Hodgson the Tsarneav brothers were in the country legally, Hodgson said that proves his point that serious vetting practice are needed.

Not to mention, added Curtatone, more white men commit crimes than any other demographic.

“It’d be ridiculous [to say] ’we should deport all white men,’” he said. “You don’t deal with crime recklessly, we know that in Somerville … we’re working with every staple we need to.”

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