Community leaders meet at Mount Holyoke, discuss sanctuary cities


Last Wednesday, the Community Based Learning program sponsored “Creating Brave Communities,” a panel on immigration, refugee resettlement and sanctuary cities. Six city councilors and community leaders compared Holyoke, Northampton and Springfield’s advocacy and decision-making processes on whether to become sanctuary cities and shared victories and obstacles.

This event examined the nationally trending topic through a local lens. Suzanne Beck, moderator of the event and executive director of the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce, said “All the [issues] in the national scene [are] translated and interpreted on a local level, where decisions which have the most impact on lives every day are made.”

The event was held in Dwight 101, which was filled with students from CBL and anthropology classes, student activists, professors and local residents. The six speakers, who were seated in a semi-circle at the front of the room, spoke passionately about their experiences, engaged in heated debates and occasionally cracked jokes. The spirited conversation ran past the allotted time and left audience members competing to ask questions at its conclusion.

Beck first explained the concept of a sanctuary city, borrowing her definition of the term from Wikipedia. According to the website, a sanctuary city is a “municipality that has adopted a policy of protecting [unauthorized] immigrants by not prosecuting them for violating federal immigration laws and by ensuring that all residents have access to city services, regardless of immigration status.”

According to CNN, ‘sanctuary city’ is a “broad term applied to jurisdictions that have policies in place designed to limit cooperation with or involvement in federal immigration enforcement actions… Most of the policies center around not cooperating with federal law enforcement on immigration policies.”

There isn’t a nationally applicable legal definition for a “sanctuary city.” In Massachusetts, a sanctuary city status is defined by a mayor’s executive order, which usually comes after negotiations — and sometimes bitter fights — between a city council and a mayor, as in Northampton and Holyoke. In other cases, it doesn’t come at all, as in the case of Springfield. But even when a mayor establishes a sanctuary city, the order is still temporary.

Alisa Klein, city councilor of Northampton, recounted the struggle over establishing a sanctuary city in her area. In 2013, Klein worked with her fellow councilors for months to produce a legislative proposal regarding sanctuary cities. After it had been through the councilors and the solicitor, it was turned down by the mayor. “He is literally the boss of all city departments,” Klein said. “Power is pulled from city council in the legislation.”

In late 2014, the city council convinced the mayor to make Northampton a sanctuary city through an executive order. To Klein, the order, which only kept 75 percent of the original proposal, lacked “teeth.” “I’m still upset about it. I see it as a fundamental difference in legal interpretation versus political interpretation,” Klein said. Adding to the executive order’s weakness, it lacks the permanence of legislation: The current mayor can change his mind, or the next mayor can repeal it.

In Holyoke, where Alex Morse was elected mayor in 2011, his executive order establishing a sanctuary city has not been subject to as many disputes. It was passed in 2014, even though the city did not have urgent concerns about an influx of undocumented immigrants. In fact, although half of Holyoke’s population is Latinx, the majority is Puerto Rican — meaning they are American citizens. According to Jossie Valentin, city councilor of Holyoke, not a single person has been affected by the sanctuary policy.

“I help educate my community about why this issue should be matter to all Latinos, whether they are US citizens or not,” Valentin said. For her, the debate around sanctuary city is not only a practical concern, but also a symbolic gesture for minorities in the city. According to the 2010 census, Holyoke has approximately 40,000 people, 47 percent of whom are Latinx. Yet the power dynamic of the city does not correspond to its population. “Among the 15 councilors, only four of us are Latino, four are women and two are gay. Everyone else is white older men,” Valentin said.

“If you are not at the table, you are probably on the menu,” said Valentin, who ran for city councilor in 2013. “I see my role as a Puerto Rican, a Latino, a woman, and a lesbian, who brings these identities to the front. Very often I get backlash for that, but that’s ok.”

After Donald Trump was elected President, Valentin tried to pass an “anti-hate” resolution in Holyoke’s city council but was met with blunt objections. She found some of her colleagues asking, “‘If we were including Muslims, why we were not including Christians since they are being beheaded worldwide?’” or “‘If we’re including people of different philosophies or political views, we also need to include Trump supporters because they’re being harassed.’” Her resolution did not pass. But Valentin thought it a rare opportunity for residents to see the representatives unrestrained: “Maybe emboldened by Trump’s victory, they forgot cameras are rolling.”

A logistical concern for cities is Trump’s threat to cut federal funding for sanctuary cities. In a press briefing last month, according to the Atlantic, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said, “We’re going to strip federal grant money from the sanctuary states and cities that harbor illegal immigrants. The American people are no longer going to have to be forced to subsidize this disregard for our laws.” For Holyoke, this would mean a loss of about $19 million of essential budget. “The fear of losing this money [is based on the assumption that] what the president said must be true,” Valentin said. “Alternative facts.”

Other panelists stressed the potential economic benefit of becoming sanctuary cities. Among them was Adam Gomez, a city councilor from Springfield Ward One, where 70 percent of the population is Puerto Rican Latinx and where the largest undocumented population in the city resides. Gomez pointed out that when the Massachusetts population is aging and young people are leaving the state, foreign-born individuals fill vacancies in the workforce. “We are vilifying the very group that our economic future depends on,” Gomez said.

One shared dilemma for the councilors is the reconciliation of their personal political stances with those of the people they represent. For Valentin, city councilor of Holyoke, that sometimes means reading 82 handwritten letters from residents with strong opinions. “If I see the same opinion from more than six people, that would influence my decision,” she said.

Klein, the self-proclaimed most radical city councilor placed in “the most conservative ward” of Northampton, emphasized balancing people’s voices with her own ethical judgment. “You need to listen and take these into account,” Klein said. “But as an elected official, you also have to do what feels ethically right for yourself. I often have to justify my decisions and initiatives.”

Many students found the panel personally relevant. Tess Ahlers ’19 came to the event as a CBL fellow and volunteer at William R. Peck School in Holyoke. Coming from a city in Southern California where most residents are Latinx, Ahlers was surprised to hear that some Latinx people in western Massachusetts are not particularly politically engaged. “Here, though they are very present and vital, they are not an active part [in local politics],” Ahlers said.

Maggie Stuart ’19 came to the event because of the requirement of her research method class and anthropology class, which aims to prepare students for their fieldwork with refugees in Northampton and Springfield. Stuart, a Vermont resident, discussed her own experience with regional politics. “All my three representatives are old white men, but progressive ones — Peter Galbraith, Patrick Leahy, Bernie Sanders. I’ve met all of them personally. They are my homeboys,” Stuart said. “I don’t know who serves on my city council though it’s a small city and I’ve voted for them in the election. I just asked my mom who should I vote for, and my mom was like ‘we like these three people.’ I was like ‘cool, I’ll vote for them.’”

Councilors are now striving to get more residents involved in the policy-making process. In Springfield, every ward has two to three neighborhood councils, which are set up to collect the views from residents. City councilors also directly connect to their constituents through social media, emails, phone calls and letters. “When you go home, meet your district councilor and your school committee member. Make sure they know your name,” Gomez said. “We have to have a human conversation.”