Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone reaffirmed his city’s status as a sanctuary city and promised to protect undocumented immigrants living in Somerville in a Jan. 25 speech.
Curtatone’s announcement followed an executive order released by President Donald Trump‘s administration on the same day, which established a policy that would revoke federal funds from “jurisdictions that fail to comply with applicable Federal law” regarding undocumented immigrants.
Curtatone said city officials are unsure of how much federal funding could be at stake if the policy is enacted, but he estimated that Somerville receives more than $12 million from the federal government annually. He affirmed that the city will deal with those financial consequences if needed.
“These are our neighbors,” Curtatone said. “Their kids go to school with our children, they’re our friends, they’re our colleagues and we are not going to treat them like suspects at every turn.”
According to Curtatone, sanctuary status for Somerville includes assuring undocumented residents they will not be at risk of deportation if they report crimes to the police, and they will not be turned in to federal immigration authorities for committing civil offenses.
Additionally, local police and city agencies are instructed not to profile Somerville residents to check their immigration status. The mayor insisted, however, that Somerville will continue to follow existing laws.
“Somerville does not harbor criminals, and we are in regular communication and cooperate in the interest of public safety with our federal agencies,” Curtatone said. “No one who commits a violent crime, felony or serious crimes gets a free pass here.’’
Curtatone also claimed that Somerville, which declared itself a sanctuary city in 1987, has seen its crime rate drop by 52.9 percent over the past three decades, with violent crime rates below the state and national averages.
Tufts Associate Professor of Sociology Helen Marrow believes that sanctuary policies, which are highly variable among the more than 300 that exist in the United States, have been misinterpreted as defiance of federal and state immigration law.
“Sanctuary city does not mean a locality or a state does not enforce immigration law, that they let undocumented immigrants run free and that undocumented immigrants are safe. It does not mean that,” Marrow said. “The conservative base that put Trump in power doesn’t understand that, largely most of the public doesn’t understand that.”
Sanctuary cities, rather, adhere to and enforce all federal and state immigration law, but will not do more than what they are required to do by said laws, according to Marrow, who is also interim director of the Latino Studies program at Tufts.
“[Sanctuary cities] basically say that, over and above what we’re required to do, we in essence won’t necessarily do extra, because we don’t believe that it helps [the community],” Marrow said. “So if they don’t have to ask, they won’t necessarily ask. They won’t collect information or ask about information about legal status or share information about legal status if it is not required by federal or state immigration law.”
The recent language used by Trump’s executive order, as well as Curtatone’s response, will have substantive effects even if they are mostly symbolic, Marrow added.
“That rhetoric itself will matter. It can shape feelings of belonging or feelings of exclusion. It can shape downstream behavior. If you feel like your mayor doesn’t exclude, if you feel like your hospitals will take you when you go in for care, you might have a chance for going in for care,” Marrow said. “[Rhetoric] sends big messages. I do think it’s primarily symbolic on both sides, but I think the symbols on both sides have enormous consequences in terms of senses of belonging.”
Guadalupe Garcia, a sophomore and member of the Welcome Project, which advocates and offers education programs for Somerville’s immigrant community, believes that Trump’s executive order could damage the confidence of immigrants living in Somerville.
[Somerville continuing to be a sanctuary city] will not be able to erase the feeling that this regime is very anti-immigrant,” Garcia said. “That can really shake someone’s sense of security even if their community feels relatively safe. Maybe it can make immigrant members of the community retreat more into themselves and be less active in it because fear can do that.”
Ben Echevarria, executive director of the Welcome Project, said that his organization will not comply with the new federal policies.
“We’re standing our ground,” Echevarria said. “We’re not going to work with federal agents on this issue.”
Echevarria also emphasized a need to clear up misconceptions about immigrants.
“We’ve allowed the lie and the myth to go out there that sanctuary cities harbor criminals when in reality, undocumented people being criminals is a tiny fraction of the smallest subgroup you can find in state or federal prisons,” Echevarria said. “In reality, most immigrants are hardworking, they’re trying to learn English, they just want a better life. They’re no different from you and I. I think pushing that and letting people understand that’s a myth and this is the truth about immigrants helps.”
Garcia said that Trump’s executive order is galvanizing her own efforts as an immigrant working for the immigrant community.
“[The order] has made me more determined to do more and to work harder,” Garcia said. “I think that those are the general feelings at the Welcome Project, too. People are using the hate coming from the presidency to rally more action.”
In an interview with the Daily, Curtatone called the support that Somerville has received “inspiring.”
“There’s certainly an outpouring of support right now,” Curtatone said. “When I walk into my office every day, I read the stack of cards and letters of support from people inside this city and all around this country and North America.”
Curtatone added that his office would continue to monitor political events pertaining to sanctuary cities.
“We’re paying close attention to the events that are going on and the legal actions [taking place] and we’ll take any and all necessary actions … to protect the immigrant populations of our community, protect our constitution, including analyzing the legal options at our disposal,” Curtatone said.
Public support for Somerville’s sanctuary status was evidenced at a rally held in celebration of the 30th anniversary of Somerville becoming a sanctuary city, according to Echevarria. The rally, which was organized by the Welcome Project, took place last Saturday in front of Somerville High School. More than a thousand people attended the rally, according to the Boston Globe.
“It’s about showing that we care about our immigrant community,” Echevarria said. “That it’s part of the fabric of this community, in the city of Somerville, and we’re not going to tolerate hate.”