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City of Grand Rapids Hosts meeting on being a Sanctuary City

December 14, 2016


Yesterday, an estimated 30 people took part in a meeting to discuss the issue of Grand Rapids becoming a Sanctuary City. There were representatives from city government, the Mayor, the City Manager, members of the Community Relations Commission and the Chief of Police.

The community was represented by several immigration lawyers, non-profit workers, community organizers and members of the faith community.

The first person to be given the floor to start discussion was the Chief of Police. He started by saying, “we don’t work to enforce national immigration policy.” Rahinsky said that once they arrest someone and process them into the county jail they no longer have jurisdiction over what happens to that person. The Chief of Police inferred that the Sheriff’s Department has say on how much they will cooperate with federal law enforcement and then he made the point that Grand Rapids operates as a Sanctuary City, even though they have never declared themselves as one.

What Grand Rapids has declared themselves as is a Welcoming City. In fact, Grand Rapids is one of ten cities in Michigan that has signed on to what are now called Welcoming Communities. The Welcoming City pledge has lots of positive language and takes a clear stand against hate.

However, there was not a great deal of clarity about what a Welcoming Community means in concrete terms and there is no evidence from the website that becoming a Welcoming Community provides any protections for those who are undocumented.

The impact on undocumented immigrants was the major concern from the members of the community who were in attendance. Several immigration lawyers and an ACLU lawyer made it clear that the current practice of the Grand Rapids Police Department does contribute to undocumented immigrants ending up in detention or face deportation, even for minor non-violent offenses such as traffic violations or a suspended driver’s license.

Several lawyers suggested that the City and the GRPD need to look at developing a policy that would not treat suspended licenses and other minor traffic violation in such a way that does not result in undocumented people going to jail. In fact, a lawyer representing the Western Michigan Branch of the ACLU suggested that the City develop  a “menu” of issues that might only result in fines or tickets so that people are not ending up in the County Jail. The ACLU even offered to assist the city in developing such a menu.trump-quote-on-santuary-cities

The other major issue that was discussed at this meeting was the issue of the potential risks associated with being a Sanctuary City. The specific risk to municipalities was in reference to proposed legislation that would result in the federal government withholding    funds from cities that identify as a Sanctuary City. The Stop Dangerous Sanctuary Cities Act (S. 3100) was introduced by Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey earlier this year. Some of the federal funding that would be put at risk are identified as Economic Development Administration Grants and Community Development Black Grants, known as CDBG funds. President Elect Trump has also made it clear that he would defund cities that have declared themselves a Sanctuary. 

The City Manager, the Mayor and other City staff were pretty clear that they did not want to risk losing federal funding by declaring Grand Rapids to be a Sanctuary City. The City Manager even made the point that much of the federal dollars that come to Grand Rapids benefit the poor.

While some might see the issue of federal funding being at risk if the City becomes a Sanctuary as a legitimate concern, what this really brings to the surface is the very limits of what governments can do.

This is why it is important for us to see the clear difference between Sanctuary Cities and Sanctuary Movements, as we noted in a recent posting. Sanctuary Movements do not have the limits that municipalities have and they also directly impact undocumented individuals and families by providing safety and solidarity in practice. Sanctuary Movements do not offer services, rather then enter into a relationship with those who are at risk of being detained, arrested or deported. Sanctuary Movements enter into this relationship even if it means that those involved in offering sanctuary are at risk of violating the law, because they adhere to values which says that human dignity is more important than laws.6-26-undocumented-unafraid

The meeting did raise important questions, but one thing that was glaringly missing from the conversation were those who are most at risk of being arrested, detained or deported. What might the conversation have looked like if the voices of the undocumented were at the table? How might city officials have responded with their voices and their stories front and center? The reality is that those who are undocumented live in fear of the consequences of talking to those who have the power to arrest, detain and deport them. Again, the limits of what government can do are real.

Speaking afterwards with several immigration lawyers, they made it clear that the meeting went better than they expected and at least there was some willingness upon the part of the City of Grand Rapids to continue the conversation about looking at police policy. It was also suggested that a sub-committee be established that can further explore ways the city can adjust policy and procedure that minimizes the risk to those who are undocumented.

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