By Anne Pyburn Craig
At its January 10 meeting, Kingston’s Common Council passed a resolution memorializing Kingston’s status as a “welcoming and inclusive city” and reaffirming a policy that had long been in place on the ground. “The Common Council…reaffirms the City of Kingston commitment to continue its longstanding and legal practice of not inquiring into the immigration status of individuals receiving government services.”
“This is so important to me because my job is to represent everyone living here, no matter,” says Kingston Mayor Steve Noble. “We did this because we want everyone in the community to feel safe, to be able to call for help when they need it.”
The modern sanctuary movement began in the 1980s, when many church congregations across the US adopted a policy of sheltering Central American immigrants from war-torn countries. A New Sanctuary movement revived in 2007 has 700 member congregations and a hashtag, #sanctuaryrising.
When it comes to cities, towns, and counties, no one is sure exactly how many exist—and there is no precise legal definition of a “sanctuary city.” Sanctuary ordinances have existed for 30 years in one form or another; the Immigrants’ Legal Research Center estimates that over 500 counties and 38 cities have policies directing local authorities not to cooperate with federal immigration authorities to one degree or another.
Kingston’s resolution makes note of the ways in which local authorities already do, and will continue to, cooperate with immigration agents: “…if a person is known to have committed a crime in violation of New York law, is sought for prosecution by another jurisdiction, is suspected of criminal conduct that may undermine homeland security, or if an officer has reason to believe human trafficking or other federal criminal activity is occurring.” It directs police and other local government agencies not to inquire into an individual’s immigration status on initial contact, codifying policy that had already been in practice in official city law.
The resolution passed with a 5-3 vote, supported by Alderwoman Lynn Eckert, D-Ward 1; Alderman Reynolds Scott-Childress, D-Ward 3; Alderwoman Nina Dawson, D-Ward 4; Majority Leader William Carey, D-Ward 5; and Alderman Steven Schabot, D-Ward 8.
The vote followed a lively public hearing. Thirty-seven people spoke in favor of the resolution, including Leonides “Leo” Santos Agustin, a Kingston resident facing deportation and co-owner of the popular Oaxacan restaurant Just For You. Speakers pointed out the importance of every Kingston citizen being free to contact the authorities should they witness a crime or public safety hazard, or become victims of a crime themselves.
Seventeen people publicly opposed the resolution at the hearing. To paraphrase, arguments included “You guys are just mad at Donald Trump;” “Right or wrong, the law is the law;” and “You’re opening the floodgates of Them,” which was perceived as likely to lessen property values (certainly not an issue in longstanding sanctuary cities such as New York and San Francisco), increase crime, and make law enforcement’s job harder.
Kingston Police Chief Egidio Tinti and Ulster County Sheriff Paul VanBlarcum are both on record as saying that the resolution will have no effect on how their officers work; asking about immigration status on routine first contact has never been official policy, and the county criminal justice system will continue to abide by federal law, which the resolution does not countermand. “We are about public safety,” Tinti said to a meeting of the Common Council’s Laws and Rules committee in December, as reported in the Daily Freeman. “We are about providing the community, its members, its residents, citizens, business owners, and its visitors a safe place to come, to live, to work, and to play.”
“The entire police commission is supportive,” says Noble. “There are Constitutional protections against illegal seizure, and states and cities have the legal right to set their own policies. The New York State Attorney General’s office is preparing a guidebook about making a city a place where immigrants are treated fairly, and what we have done here is covered in that. The next step is to incorporate these policies and procedures into the official police department manual, but as the chief said, we’re just formalizing the way it already works on the ground.”
Opponents of the resolution said at the meeting that Kingston might risk losing federal aid and grant monies; an executive order issued by the new administration on Tuesday, January 25 directs the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security to withhold federal money, “except as required by law,” from jurisdictions where local authorities do not comply with federal detainer requests, not an issue specifically addressed in Kingston’s resolution. Under current national and local policy, fingerprints of arrested people are sent to the FBI, which sends the data to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which may then issue a detainer request. President Donald Trump’s executive order may mean that deportation procedures can begin before conviction, but contains nothing specific about jurisdictions where police are simply directed not to ask the question on initial contact.
Noble isn’t worried. “He can say a lot of things, but Congress and federal laws would have to change for something to be enacted in a way that would impact us,” he says. “If something like that is enacted, we’ll turn to the state and to the Attorney General’s office. They are here to support us. And we have very good lawyers who do immigration work.”
Kingston’s 2017 budget includes $517,500 in federal aid, none of which can legally be withheld unless the city is found to be in violation of federal law. The executive order is likely to face a number of court battles before it can be implemented; mayors of DC, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, among others, all said in the wake of Trump’s pronouncement that their sanctuary policies will not change.
According to the New York State Office for New Americans, there are over 170,000 undocumented residents in the Hudson Valley out of a total immigrant population of 300,000, mostly Latin Americans, whose new businesses add a total of $12.6 billion to the state’s net income. According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, undocumented residents pay over a billion dollars a year in state and local taxes.
Statewide, Kingston is one of three declared sanctuary cities; Syracuse and Rochester also shield locals from the ICE to one extent or another. Locally, Saugerties police chief Joseph Sinagra, while rejecting the idea of sanctuary city designation, explained to Paula Mitchell of Hudson Valley News Network that his department doesn’t ask about immigration status on initial contact, and New Paltz deputy town supervisor Daniel Torres told Terence Ward at HudsonValleyOne that New Paltz was a de facto sanctuary with no need to adopt a special resolution. “We did it in the past,” noted Torres. “It’s called Huguenot Street.”
As the federal situation continues to unfold, it remains to be seen to what lengths our communities may go to protect undocumented residents or root them out. One thing seems sure: harsh immigration measures can have unintended consequences. According to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center and the Center for American Progress, Trump’s plan to repeal the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals act of 2012 could cost the United States $433.4 billion over the next ten years.