NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify which cities have been labeled “sanctuary cities” by anti-sanctuary advocates.
As sanctuary cities come under fire across the nation, Oberlin’s council plans to make a bold statement.
Its Feb. 21 agenda will include language reaffirming the city as “a place of welcome to people from other countries,” said councilman Scott Broadwell.
He’s calling for an amendment to the city’s 2009 resolution that established a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy when it comes to city staff’s interactions with immigrants —a policy that clashes with President Donald Trump’s stances.
The words “sanctuary city” aren’t specifically mentioned anywhere in the document but it does send a clear message: “We wanted people in the community, whether they’re here legally or not, to be able to come forward for help on everything from utilities to police,” Broadwell said.
He said Oberlin officials are concerned with the rights of legal immigrants, especially following an executive order last month by Trump that blocked entry to the United States of noncitizens — even those with legal visas — from seven Middle Eastern nations. The “Muslim ban,” as it was called by both the president and key advisors, was billed as an anti-terrorism measure but was shut down as a form of religious discrimination.
Trump’s order drew massive protests at international airports nationwide. Federal judges, swayed by lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union and other watchdogs, have since put brakes on it.
But Broadwell and many others remain worried about the rights of visitors to the U.S., green card holders, and undocumented immigrants. “I think we have to say something. We have to make some kind of statement,” he said.
Council vice president Linda Slocum said the city’s resolution is an affirmation of its core values.
“This is part of Oberlin’s history, from the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, from when we were founded, from being a haven on the Underground Railroad. In the 1980s we housed refugees from Guatemala and El Salvadore on their way to Canada,” she said.
She thinks Oberlin should invite other cities to stand in solidarity to “make a good statement about the power local governments can have.”
THE BIGGER BATTLE
Anti-sanctuary activists online claim other Ohio sanctuary cities include Columbus, Dayton, Lima, Painesville, and Lorain, as well as Lake and Lucas counties.
That’s hard to peg down because “sanctuary city” isn’t a legal designation. The label is a loose one based on sometimes unspoken or unofficial stances.
For instance, Lorain has no resolution declaring its position, but police chief Cel Rivera instructs his officers not to check suspects for immigration papers. And Painesville flat out rejects the moniker, pointing us to a 2008 ordinance declaring its intention to comply with federal law enforcement.
Among Trump’s first acts in office was to issue an executive order calling for punishment of cities — like Oberlin — that ignore federal agency requests to detain undocumented immigrants, or which keep the Department of Homeland Security out of the loop.
To enforce that ideology, Trump tapped former Sen. Jeff Sessions for the job of U.S. Attorney General.
Sessions, who has a troubled history with civil rights and in the Senate demanded a crackdown on immigration, was confirmed to the nation’s top legal post Feb. 8 by a party line vote of Congress. He is on record saying sanctuary cities should be prosecuted.
Sessions may have grounds. Court rulings last year found cities and counties must cooperate with immigration agents whether they like federal immigration policy or not.
State law may soon side with the courts.
Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, a Republican, is running for the U.S. Senate and has made immigration a cornerstone of his campaign against Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown. He’s also backed a bill proposed by state Rep. Candice Keller (R-Middletown) that would outlaw cities from declaring themselves as sanctuaries.
Introduced Feb. 6, it drew immediate criticism from the ACLU of Ohio: “Immigration enforcement is a federal issue, not a local or state one, and federal law does not require cities to help with immigration enforcement,” said senior policy director Mike Brickner. “This bill would attempt to punish localities and city officials for not violating constitutional rights. This is extremely counterproductive and makes our communities less safe by pitting law enforcement against immigrant communities.”
Democrats also lashed back at Mandel and Keller. State Reps. Dan Ramos (D-Lorain) and Stephanie Howse (D-Cleveland) have announced a proposal to make Ohio a sanctuary state. They said local police shouldn’t do the jobs of immigration agents; when they are asked to round up suspected undocumented immigrants they are too busy checking papers to solve crimes.
Mandel followed up by denouncing Cincinnati mayor John Cranley, who has also declared his city will offer sanctuary to immigrants.
“Sanctuary cities need to stop. Period,” his Senate campaign said in an email plea for money. “Right now across the country liberal extremists are flouting the rule of law and making our nation less safe.”
“I’m the only candidate in this race who’s pledged to crack down on this outrageous subversion of our laws,” Mandel said. “My Democratic opponent? He’s all for it. He’ll gladly sacrifice our jobs and our security in the name of his leftist agenda.”
Brown, who opposed Sessions’ nomination for attorney general, has voted against comprehensive immigration reform. He has also voted in favor of continuing federal funds to sanctuary cities such as Oberlin.
The GOP is already moving to quash sanctuary cities in other states.
The Texas Senate voted Feb. 7 to punish those cities that refuse assistance to federal officials by withholding state funding. The bill has yet to clear the House and is being fought by the Texas ACLU.
The Pennsylvania Senate passed similar legislation the same day. “Sanctuary cities are dangerous and irresponsible. 1,800 crimes in 2014, including over 121 murders in a few year span, is a steep price to pay so that sanctuary city legislators can score cheap political points,” wrote Republican Sen. Guy Reschenthaler.
The facts: Immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people who are born in the United States, and not just by a slim margin.
They are only 20 to 50 percent as likely to be jailed, census data shows. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, noncitizens comprise about seven percent of the nation’s population but make up only five percent of state and federal inmate populations.
A report released in late January by the Center for American Progress and the National Immigration Law Center found crime is statistically significantly lower in sanctuary counties — and economies there are stronger with lower unemployment, higher median incomes, and less poverty.
Among its key findings is that sanctuary counties average 35.5 fewer crimes committed per 10,000 people compared to nonsanctuary counties.
The study suggests that “when local law enforcement focuses on keeping communities safe, rather than becoming entangled in federal immigration enforcement efforts, communities are safer and community members stay more engaged in the local economy. This in turn brings benefits to individual households, communities, counties, and the economy as a whole.”
ORIGINS AND REPURCUSSIONS
Oberlin declared itself a sanctuary city in 2009 with the 6-1 passage of its resolution.
The action came in response to a federal raid on Casa Fiesta on South Main Street (today the spot is Lupita’s Mexican Restaurant) as well as chain locations in Ashland, Vermilion, Youngstown, Fremont, Oregon, Norwalk, and Sandusky. The owner, Ramon Ornelas of Norwalk, was charged with harboring and concealing illegal aliens, mail fraud, and falsifying tax returns.
Ultimately, a U.S. District Court judge in Cleveland ordered Ornelas’ properties forfeited and he was turned over to U.S. Marshals for deportation, according to federal court records.
In contentious meetings, supporters and opponents clashed over Oberlin’s safe haven declaration.
Then-police chief Tom Miller had opposed council’s resolution, saying it would stop officers from investigating complaints of abuse against immigrants by employers. He later supported a tweaked version that allowed city employees, including police, to ask people about their immigration status.
Opposing the resolution was the Ohio Jobs & Justice PAC, which dangled the suggestion of a lawsuit against the city on constitutional grounds. “The city of Oberlin has foolishly chosen arbitrary governance over the rule of law. It may find it necessary to defend itself in two courts — a court of law and of public opinion,” said the PAC’s founder, Steve Salvi.
Broadwell doesn’t think Oberlin will find itself embroiled in legal action for its stance anytime soon.
Slocum acknowledged that Trump, Mandel, and others are talking about retribution. “I’m hoping there will be a lot of legal hurdles,” she said. “I’m hoping the legal system will do its job and act as a check and balance.”
Suits aside, hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funding could be at stake if Trump decides to bring down the hammer.
Oberlin finance director Sal Talarico provided a list of federal monies received from 2013 to 2015, totaling roughly $570,000.
Those funds helped buy breathing masks and tanks for Oberlin firefighters, bulletproof vests and body cameras for police, and provided downtown revitalization cash to small businesses.
Broadwell said he doesn’t believe Oberlin resolution can be construed in any way that would endanger that funding.
“But I’m not a lawyer,” he said.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.