November 20, 2016

Editorial: Timely reassurance for Worcester’s undocumented immigrants

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Refugees have long found a welcoming first stop in Worcester.

America is a place where people want to be. For generations, the combination of opportunity, freedom and inclusion has lured us and kept us here.

In such a storied melting pot, immigration pressures are inevitable.

And solving them is not simple. The underlying premise of immigration policies and reforms, though, is easy: The United States must stay true to the identity that has helped bring it so much greatness.

That means protecting and encouraging the country’s diversity.

City View 2

In Worcester, we are especially blessed in this regard. We see it in the faces and businesses all around us. Our longstanding welcome to refugees and other newcomers, and to people of various heritages and faiths, is part of what makes our city a thriving and ever-evolving center of innovation and discovery.

The city is doing its part in another way, as well.  Last week, addressing worries that have swept Worcester as much as the nation in the wake of Donald Trump’s election to the Oval Office, City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. said Worcester will continue its hands-off policy about pursuing suspects’ immigration status.

In a statement, the Telegram & Gazette reported, Augustus said: “The men and women of the Worcester Police Department spend considerable effort creating connections with the community they serve.

Edward M. Augustus Jr.

Courtesy NAMI Mass

Edward M. Augustus Jr.

“Policies that make residents of the city fearful to seek help, report crimes, or provide information to the police are not in the best interest of the safety of our community. Like other major police departments, including the Massachusetts State Police, the Worcester Police Department does not enforce federal immigration laws. That policy, which makes our city a safer place, will not change.”

This is a reasonable and reassuring message to the city’s undocumented immigrant residents — the vast majority of whom are otherwise law-abiding and as interested as everyone else in a safe and peaceful community.

Essentially, the city manager is saying there will be no change in city policy.

Donald Trump, of course, signaled change. He called for crackdowns on illegal immigration throughout his campaign, most emphatically in his early pledge — later softened somewhat — to build a wall between the United States and Mexico, and have Mexico pay for it.

Of more immediate concern, included in Trump’s to-do list for his first 100 days in office is something he said he’ll do on day one: “cancel all federal funding to [s]anctuary [c]ities.”

Donald Trump

Flickr / Gage Skidmore

Donald Trump

That pledge, which echoes similarly unsuccessful calls in Congress in recent years, has caused some confusion and fear, particularly in cities that have designated themselves sanctuaries (San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Boston and Cambridge, among more than 30). Questions include whether “all federal funding” means “all” or just money related to law enforcement, and whether the idea will hold up through Congress and any legal challenges.

(For some chilling perspective, San Francisco, as a sanctuary city, is fearful of losing more than $1 billion a year in federal funds. Boston stands to forfeit about $250 million.)

Worcester is not a sanctuary city and so is presumably safe from the president-elect’s promise to yank federal funding. A resident effort almost a decade ago to make Worcester a sanctuary city never reached a City Council vote. Nevertheless, the city’s policies concerning police and undocumented immigrants align with those of a typical sanctuary city.

The term is self-designated and has no precise definition. In general, “sanctuary city” means the jurisdiction does not usually cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In practice, this means someone arrested is not asked about immigration status, and ICE is not informed when they are about to be released from custody.

With the federal government and many local governments — not to mention leaders and residents — so at odds over immigration, it has long been clear that respectful deliberations and careful reforms are in order.

Mayor Joseph M. Petty said it well when he addressed a Worcester Interfaith gathering at City Hall last Tuesday: “We all deserve better than what we heard over the course of this last presidential campaign.”

Mayor Petty

Mayor Petty

Public safety is a top priority, most agree. But when it comes to immigration policy, agreement tends to end there. Argument is one thing, but too often this topic is taken over by emotions and anger, fueled by multiple considerations such as concerns about limited resources, and the need for law and order.

The problems predate Trump by decades. President Obama wasn’t immune; his administration has been widely criticized as too aggressive on deportations.

Sina-cism: The real line on immigration and how Obama crossed it

Principled arguments are healthy to some extent, but on this issue it has gone on too long.

Ideological and practical struggles are part of our identity as a young, free and vibrant democracy. Another part of our identity, though, we must be careful not to lose: that of leader for the world. That has to begin with abiding respect for each other.

We must remain a nation that finds answers to preserve all those things that make us special, up to and including diversity as a source of unity, stability and possibility.

Thanksgiving week is a time to put gratitude and togetherness on the table first. It would be a good time to reflect on, and vow in our own ways to protect, what makes the United States such an eminently desirable home.

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