Sanctuary city defenders decry bill to block state aid

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BOSTON – Sanctuary city defenders from current and ex-state lawmakers to faith leaders, immigrant-rights advocates, a pediatrician and former American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts leader all lined up Thursday to deliver impassioned remarks in opposition to the latest version of a bill that seeks to penalize these communities by stripping them of state aid.

“I have rarely seen a more vague or problematic piece of legislation as H 1856,” said John Roberts, the former executive director of the state ACLU, referring to the bill introduced by Rep. Marc Lombardo (R-Billerica). “What federal immigration laws are local authorities required or even legally allowed to enforce?”

Lombardo’s proposal, which he has introduced repeatedly, features language that mirrors a measure that passed the U.S. House of Representatives last summer. That action came after a San Francisco woman, Kate Steinle, was gunned down on a popular pier, allegedly by a Mexican national who had been deported from the U.S. five times and had recently been set free by local authorities. They cited city policy prohibiting them from enforcing a federal immigration detention order for the man.

The bill submitted by Lombardo holds that cities and towns like Cambridge, Somerville and Worcester that elect not to enforce federal immigration statutes would be stripped of “unrestricted” state aid. The lawmaker didn’t attend the hearing, however, citing an unanticipated child-care issue.

“Failure to comply with federal immigration laws shall include, but is not limited to, a declaration of ‘sanctuary city’ status by the chief executive or executive board of legislative branch of the city or town,” Lombardo’s proposal states.

Thursday’s hearing, held by the Joint Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government, took place amid a national dialogue over who is and isn’t welcome on American soil, following Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s controversial proposal to halt all Muslim immigrants and visitors to the U.S. Trump’s proposal came on the heels of last week’s terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California. At least one of the perpetrators claimed allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State, or ISIS.

Roberts said he has trouble accepting the Sanctuary Cities proposal as an example of “serious” legislation and made references to America’s current political climate.

“It appears to be more of a ‘piling-on’ to the anti-immigration hysteria being perpetuated by certain political leaders and presidential candidates in this country at this time,” Roberts said. “Massachusetts should have no part of this anti-immigration ploy.”

After the hour-long hearing ended, Lombardo objected to such characterizations and defended the proposal.

“This bill not only strengthens security but removes the magnet from Massachusetts for illegal immigration,” Lombardo said. He rejected claims that the law would be “harmful to communities and to residents.”

Some critics disputed the measure’s premise. One, Rep. Denise Provost (D-Somerville), was Somerville’s city attorney when it adopted its sanctuary city status. She faulted the proposal for seeming to presuppose that the targeted communities fail to enforce federal immigration laws.

“I don’t know where this idea comes from but it is embodied in this bill,” Provost said. “Municipal police are not federal employees and have no training in immigration laws.”

“Cities and towns are not in the business of flouting the law, which of course would be unlawful,” Provost said. She also argued that a “declaration of sanctuary city status is mostly feel-good rhetoric” and “relates more to the attitude of the city and its discretionary actions.”

Lombardo also shrugged off suggestions that his measure would be too burdensome for local police.

“What we are asking is that all law enforcement follow the laws and work with federal agencies instead of turning a blind eye as sanctuary city leaders require,” he said.

Others who testified said Lombardo’s bill would create a chilling effect between citizens and police.

Rev. Maria Cristina Vlassidis Burgoa of the First Parish in Brookline, a Unitarian Universalist church, said the law would generate fear, resulting in“effectively driving  people both undocumented and documented underground with respect to reporting” crimes like sexual abuse and domestic assault.

“We find bills of this type increase fear and paranoia,” she said.

Not all the dozen or so witnesses spoke out against the bill, however. John Thompson, an executive board member of the Massachusetts Coalition for Immigration Reform, said he could “recite case-after-case” in which law enforcement officials have said crimes could have been prevented if not for a sanctuary city policy.

“I think we’re at a crossroads right now,” Thompson said. “Everyone from Trump to Obama agrees on one thing the immigration system is broken.”

Thompson said the coalition is looking to “help the state and the country get a hold of a problem that’s gotten out of control.”

“Your constituents, they get angry, occasionally people stir them up, but I think there is something genuine in their concerns about security, terrorism and loss of wages,” Thompson said. “They’re not the fantasies of some sort of dark inhuman impulse, racial hatred or that sort of thing.”

Confronting Thompson after the meeting, Rep. Adrian Madaro (D-East Boston), a member of the committee, took issue with some of his remarks.

“I respectfully disagree with what you just said,” Madaro told Thompson, saying he represents a community of immigrants. “My neighborhood is a gateway, and my father immigrated here from Italy 35 years ago,” he said. “Many of the folks I represent are documented and some are not documented. But the reality is that unfair deportation is real and many folks who have been deported from East Boston are not convicted felons.”

Lombardo later said that illegal immigration is costing the state roughly $2 billion a year, “money that can go back to our community for education and roads and bridges.”

The lawmaker first introduced the measure in January 2013 but it failed to gain traction. He introduced it again in April 2013 as a budget amendment, only to see it fail, 125-31.

In order for the bill to advance, the committee must report it “favorably” by year-end.

Contact Evan Lips at [email protected] or on Twitter at @evanmlips.