Editorial: ‘Disheartening’ to pull grants from sanctuary cities

  • Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies during a U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on Capitol Hill Tuesday, June 13, 2017 in Washington, D.C. Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Donald Trump may not always be a fan of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, but the president can’t complain about Sessions’ commitment to advancing the cruel and misguided war on immigrants.

Last week, Sessions announced that police departments — potentially including those in Amherst and Northampton — would no longer be eligible for Justice Department grants unless local officers work with federal immigration officials to detain and deport undocumented immigrants.

That threat could have real implications for Amherst, where the federal funding helps to pay for a community liaison at the police department. In Northampton, it could imperil a school resource officer position now financed with help from a $91,700 federal grant.

“It’s disheartening to believe the federal government would consider withholding funds that directly impact the safety of our officers and of our city,” Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper told Gazette staff writer Amanda Drane.

Amherst and Northampton are among the municipalities that have declared themselves “sanctuary cities,” places where local police officials decline to help the feds round up immigrants who lack proper documentation but have otherwise committed no crimes meriting deportation.

Sessions wants local departments to give federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials access to detention facilities and provide the agency at least 48 hours notice before releasing a person sought by the feds for alleged immigration violations. The Trump administration says the measure is necessary to root out foreign-born criminals living among us.

“So-called ‘sanctuary’ policies make all of us less safe because they intentionally undermine our laws and protect illegal aliens who have committed crimes,” Sessions said in a statement. “These policies also encourage illegal immigration and even human trafficking by perpetuating the lie that in certain cities, illegal aliens can live outside the law.”

Nobody, including local police officials, argues with the need to deal sternly with people — regardless of their nation of birth — who break the law. Those people are already being detained, tried, and if guilty, punished. The real targets of this new initiative are people like longtime Hampshire County resident Niberd Alzendi Abdalla.

Abdalla was born in Iraq but came to the United States more than 40 years ago as his family fled political persecution and violence. He has for years lived in the Pioneer Valley, committing no crimes, taking care of his aging parents and contributing to the community. Because he failed to complete his visa paperwork as a young man, however, he is now in a jail cell in Suffolk County, facing possible deportation.

If Abdalla is forced to return to Iraq, the prospects are grim: He has no real ties there, he doesn’t speak the languages well and he could find himself facing more persecution. To make matters worse, he has significant health problems — problems that have worsened during his time in jail to the point where his supporters say he now needs a wheelchair to get around.

Shortly after Sessions threatened to cut funding to sanctuary cities, a group of residents gathered to write letters and make phone calls seeking the release of Abdalla and another Massachusetts detainee.

“Hi, I’m calling about two individuals who are in ICE detention,” Zana Shaw said into the phone at the Pioneer Valley Workers Center. “I’m a resident of Amherst and it’s important to me that these individuals are looked at carefully — both of these are cherished members of our community.”

Of course, there are immigrants who deliberately sidestep American laws, and the nation needs a system for dealing with such abuses. But so many undocumented immigrants are like Abdalla, who find themselves overwhelmed by red tape or lack a reasonable opportunity to establish themselves legally. Most of those people are making our communities better, not worse.

We applaud Kasper, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and other officials who refuse to participate in the heartless federal dragnet. We applaud the residents who are raising their voices in support of their neighbors. And we hope that someday soon Trump and his lieutenants will remember that this great country was built by people who began their lives someplace else.