Local group looks to create sanctuary for immigrants in New London

New London — A group of local activists is pushing for a city ordinance that would move the city closer to becoming a full-fledged sanctuary city, an idea that has critics worried about unwanted attention from federal authorities.

The City Council’s Public Safety Committee on Monday considered a proposed resolution crafted by People Power, a grass-roots activist group organized by the American Civil Liberties Union, with input from the city attorney and chief of police.

The resolution — People Power prefers it be passed as an ordinance — reaffirms the city’s commitment to protecting its immigrant population and outlines some specific measures under which U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or Customs and Border Protection agents may conduct operations in the city.

Several councilors voiced concerns about the proposal during Monday’s half-hour meeting. Safety committee Chairwoman Alma Nartatez said the issue was brought forward to elicit an open public dialogue. She expected continued discussion during a meeting next month.

The resolution reinforces the city’s practice of requiring a judicial warrant prior to detaining an individual at the request of federal agents or arresting anyone on the basis of an immigration detainer.

It would prevent federal agents access to a detained individual without a court order or “legitimate law enforcement purpose.” It bars city police officers from asking about a person’s immigration status or citizenship unless it relates to a crime unrelated to enforcement of immigration law.

The resolution prohibits city officials from questioning, arresting, detaining or any action based solely on race, national origin, religion, language or immigration status unless the person is linked to a crime.

The measure is in ways similar to an executive order issued by former Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio on his first day in office. Both Finizio and current Mayor Michael Passero have pronounced the city as a welcoming place for refugees and immigrants but stopped short of calling New London a sanctuary city, a term typically attached to cities that have some policies in place or taken a public stance against use of local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration law.

People Power member Judy Kirmmse, who spoke with councilors on Monday, said the resolution is within the scope of both state and federal law and would not impede lawful work of federal agents.

“Our proposed ordinance would be a positive step for the city to take,” Kirmmse said. “Our objective is to stand with the vulnerable members of our community and not to stand against President Donald Trump's administration. Residents look locally for signals of support that they belong in a community. They look to local ordinances and regulations to understand how their community perceives them.”

She said immigrants would feel more comfortable reporting crimes to police if they knew they were being protected from “overzealous federal agents.” The resolution would strengthen community policing efforts, she said.

While Kirmmse said the measure is not intended as an anti-Trump initiative, the ACLU on its website calls the People Power movement a “new strategy and vision for resisting the Trump administration’s worst abuses of our freedoms.”

Police Chief Peter Reichard said the short-staffed police department has too much work of its own to be enforcing federal immigration laws. He said the department would not change any of its current practices with passage of the resolution.

Councilor Don Venditto echoed concerns voiced by others at Monday’s meeting.

“I think it has us flirting with danger. From everything I’ve read ... the current laws on the books pretty much cover everything in here. Why draw attention to ourselves?” Venditto said.

Reid Burdick, one of several residents who spoke against the measure Monday, asked councilors, “Is there a problem?”

“To the best of my knowledge ... New London doesn’t have any issue with a police department in the way they handle these issues. So why stir the pot? Why are you doing this?”

Resident John Russell declared the proposal an anti-Trump measure designed to incite discontent and an attempt by the liberal left to gain more votes.

“You need that minority vote to be re-elected. It’s a shameful truth,” he said.

Kat Goulart questioned the cost of the city’s attorney working with People Power and cautioned the council about President Trump’s promise to punish sanctuary cities by withholding federal funding.

“We cannot afford to have (Attorney General) Jeff Sessions in here sanctioning us and taking money from us. That’s the road we’re going down,” she said.

Kirmmse acknowledged the potential for federal scrutiny and said that past attempts by the government to sanction sanctuary cities have failed when faced with a legal challenge.

The comment prompted Councilor John Satti to question whether the ACLU would defend the city in the event there was a legal challenge. Satti said he also was concerned about the city impeding work by federal authorities. While he said he was not in favor of New Londoners being detained and deported, he also does "not want to see criminals here illegally remain.”

Councilor Efrain Dominguez said the resolution had merit and deserved at least consideration.

“Right now, we don’t have issues. But we don’t know about the future,” Dominguez said. “Things change. So, those are things we need to think about. Look what’s happening nationally.”

g.smith@theday.com 

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