February 5, 2017

Editorial: Super debacle on sanctuary question

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Terageorge/Wikimedia Commons

Worcester City Hall

An us-vs.-them attitude is perfectly OK — on the football field.

In real life, it can cause all sorts of problems.

Take the current hot-button topic of sanctuary cities, which was ubiquitous in the news around the country the last couple of weeks, and embarrassingly so in Worcester.

Mayor Joseph M. Petty and City Councilor-at-large Michael T. Gaffney are both at fault, and got results they deserve for getting local residents needlessly fired up over an issue too important for gamesmanship.

Immigrants and the immigrant experience are of course a huge part of U.S. history and identity. We have a vibrant democracy striving to promote peace, prosperity, equity and opportunity; and diversity and welcome are part of America’s winning formula. That welcome, though, isn’t automatic or without limits.

Struggling to keep the nation’s doors the right degree of open, in order to keep the United States strong, safe and its ideals alive, has vexed us for decades.

We cannot say this often enough: Democracy takes work, leadership and wisdom.

Immigration is a complicated topic. Watering it down to choosing sides — citizens vs. undocumented residents, Republicans vs. Democrats, local vs. federal government — is a distraction from the effort, reflection and action needed to collectively make the best choices. There will always be arguments and counterarguments in a vibrant democracy.

We must remember: clear answers, right or wrong, don’t necessarily emerge on our schedule. Respectful resistance has its place. As does the rule, and force, of law.

We do the best we can, learn from that, and keep moving toward a better community. A more perfect union.

The sanctuary city description, which numerous places — not including Worcester — have formally adopted, is, at best, part of the pushback needed and expected of a thriving democracy. But it is noise and distraction, too, and certainly became that at City Hall on Tuesday.

The term does not have a precise definition, but it applies to places (such as Boston, Cambridge, San Francisco, Denver) that have a policy of leaving immigration matters under federal purview. In practice, residents detained or questioned by police are not asked about immigration status; and sanctuary cities do not routinely cooperate with immigration authorities, although generally will do so if asked.

Worcester, clearly, is a sanctuary city. That’s to its credit and has been for years.

Courtesy NAMI Mass

Edward M. Augustus Jr.

As outlined by Police Chief Steve Sargent, and approved by City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr., Worcester’s law enforcement policy aligns with that of places that have gone farther, on paper, and self-designated as a sanctuary.

Worcester police, the chief wrote in a document requested by the city manager, “cooperate with law enforcement partners at all levels, and do not interfere with Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) ability to enforce immigration laws.” He also wrote: “Police do not ever ask for any person’s immigration status or citizenship.”

The reason, Chief Sargent wrote, is that his department does not have “the jurisdiction, authority or resources to do so.” Further, he, Augustus and other city leaders have long held that public safety is enhanced when residents trust local authorities. In the case of otherwise law-abiding undocumented residents, that means not living in fear of exposure of their status and deportation.

We agree with this.

And we believe the sanctuary cities designation is not an answer so much as a symptom of systemwide flaws in immigration policy. The solution resides in Washington and must come from the U.S. Congress.

Meanwhile, President Trump recently upped the ante, issuing an executive order Jan. 25 declaring that the nation’s so-called sanctuary cities risk losing federal funding. However, the executive order is vague as to what federal monies would be involved, and experts say any implementation is likely to be complicated by procedural questions and court cases.

Worcester is on fine footing not to stick its toe in this fray. There is no reason to become alarmed by the president’s pen — and no reason to waste our own time writing up our own declaration as an “official” sanctuary city.

The city’s policies are reasonable and sensible. That we behave as a sanctuary city, with welcome and respect for all law-abiding residents without concern or undue questioning on background or immigration status, is enough. Police also, appropriately, “cooperate with law enforcement partners at all levels,” according to the chief.

Though the country’s immigration laws are overdue for improvement, the city has long held to its comfort level on the topic and is striking the right balance.

However, the issue played into the hands of Gaffney, the perpetual antagonist, and Petty, the generally staid mayor, who both attempted to play the sanctuary city issue for political points in the first month of what figures to become a very long election year.

Michael T. Gaffney

Courtesy city of Worcester

Gaffney

Gaffney’s resolution to declare Worcester not a sanctuary city failed Tuesday night by a vote of 9-to-2, with only City Councilor Konstantina B. Lukes taking his side.

Gaffney and Petty were foes in the 2015 mayoral race who will likely spar again for the post in the municipal elections later this year. His resolution came across as political posturing more than sincere concern that Worcester — as an undeclared but de facto sanctuary city — could lose millions in federal dollars under Trump.

Days before the vote Gaffney, in a Telegram & Gazette interview, said, “[Petty’s] callous disregard for the potential loss of federal monies that will disproportionately harm the neediest and most vulnerable among us is unacceptable.”

In response, the mayor’s usually calm demeanor — a comportment we expect from one in his office — failed him and he flung emotional words of his own.

Topix.com

Mayor Petty

Petty said for the same story that Gaffney was “playing to the cheap seats” by creating an issue that didn’t exist, Also: “I’m going to have everyone’s back. If we aren’t going to protect our immigrants, then you may as well take the Statue of Liberty, pack it up and send it back to France.”

Worse, he drummed up the non-issue by urging residents to attend a rally last Tuesday evening. An activist group planned the rally for outside City Hall to show opposition to the president’s stances on immigration and refugee. Partly on Petty’s encouragement, hundreds showed up. A throng later went loudly inside; once the City Council meeting came to order, the councilors heard earnest stories and pleas from some of them.

It was compelling — but also distracting, unnecessary, and a failure of leadership. Many residents were in fear about possible future deportation. The City Council’s meeting time could have and should have been put to much better service.

Then there were the appalling “open mic” comments that were picked up beginning around the three-minute mark of the city’s own video recording of the meeting. The mayor admitted and then un-admitted that he had uttered words seeming to have come from him — including “freaking morons” and references to the protestors being “stupid” and “not educated.”

A local activist, Richard Aucoin — interestingly, someone who supported Gaffney in his mayoral bid two years ago — stepped up after the controversy erupted on social media to say it was actually him speaking the offending phrases.

An already undignified episode became bizarre and bumbling.

Certainly people make mistakes and say things they don’t mean — and we don’t know exactly who said what — but mumbles picked up by an open microphone as the mayor waited the chamber to come to order ended up being the most memorable outcome of a meeting that had begun to go out of order days before.

Both the mayor and Aucoin said they were frustrated by the delay to the start of the meeting because of the chants and other disruptions in the halls by the invited ralliers. That much, at least, is understandable in this whole debacle.

We say, flags on the play all around.

Government isn’t about winning and losing, not from the point of view of the governed. It’s about wisdom, deliberation, cooperation and concern. We in Worcester should demand better, of ourselves always, and of our City Council at least on Tuesdays.

Everyone deserves a breather from the anger and worry of late. Politics should never take up this much of our attention — and when leaders are doing their jobs, it doesn’t.

There’s sanctuary in the Super Bowl. Go, Patriots!

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