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'Sanctuary' coalition pressures Metro Council to adopt immigrant protections

Stephen Bartlett lights a candle during a rally before a Metro Council meeting at City Hall in Louisville, KY. Credit: Frankie Steele

Louisville's movement to resist President Donald Trump's crackdown on sanctuary cities made its way to City Hall on Thursday evening as a coalition of social justice groups turned up the pressure on city leaders to expand and solidify protections for undocumented immigrants.

"We want to be sure we are creating policies and procedures to protect these families and children," said Sarah Nuñez, a member of Mijente Louisville, a social justice group that focuses on immigrant's rights and various other issues.

Roughly four dozen demonstrators lined up along Sixth Street outside City Hall holding signs and playing drums that called on the city to adopt a resolution or ordinance that expressly says Louisville does not prosecute people for violating federal immigration laws and ensures that they have access to city services.

"Being a sanctuary city is something we should have done a long time ago," said Garrett Gillen, a supply chain worker who joined the protest.

Demonstrators moved into Metro Council chambers where Nuñez and others told members that it is important for the city to follow the lead of Jefferson County Public Schools, which adopted a resolution this week making Louisville's public system a safe haven for immigrant students and their families.

"Now is not the time to play things safe or close to the cuff, not when real people are suffering the very real fear and uncertainty of our deranged despot-in-chief's Muslim ban ," said Chris Hartman, executive director of the Fairness Campaign, which is part of the so-called Sanctuary Coalition along with Louisville Showing Up for Racial Justice, Looking for Lilith and Black Lives Matter Louisville.

Mayor Greg Fischer and other local officials have warned against declaring Louisville a sanctuary city because it may jeopardize certain federal funding and draws the ire of state and federal leaders.

Gov. Matt Bevin, for instance, said the JCPS resolution was illegal and "a distraction from the fact the system is broken." And just this week Republican state Rep. Dan Johnson filed a bill that would forbid local governments from enacting any ordinance, resolution or policy that resists Trump's crackdown.

Councilman Rick Blackwell, D-12th District, said the city does need to look at drafting specific policies to protect immigrants and refugees, but that making Louisville a sanctuary city puts a target on the city's back.

"It's very clear we're a compassionate city," he said. "But is there a way we can put something in a resolution that says the things we believe, and that also says we stand in solidarity with immigrants and refugees who are a huge part of this community."

Trump has threatened the federal funding of sanctuary cities, which has rattled some local leaders who warn against picking a fight with the president and others. Bellarmine University's board of trustees announced this week that it opted against becoming a sanctuary campus due to fears of losing federal assistance for students.

Councilwoman Julie Denton said the potential of losing funding, such as homeland security grants, should make the city think twice. She added that given the city's record-breaking homicide rate last year, Louisville declaring itself a sanctuary city could make violent crime worse.

"I'm not saying that all folks who are here illegally are bad," said Denton, R-19th. "Most of them aren't but I think when you become a sanctuary city you become a haven for those sorts of people. We've got enough problems with crime in our city that we don't need to encourage that."

Supporters of Trump's efforts point to cases of undocumented immigrants killing U.S. citizens, such as the 2015 murder of Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco. Steinle's alleged killer, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, who had a felony record, was deported five times.

Several national studies have shown, however, that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than U.S.-born residents. Experts have also said evidence does not support the idea that undocumented immigrants commit crimes at a higher rate than U.S. citizens.

Nuñez, a Louisville educator, who is Columbian-American, said immigrants are being stigmatized. She said city leaders must take a definitive stand for law-abiding immigrants who work, pay taxes and send their children to school before federal enforcement tightens.

"The thing that's the worst about this immigration debate is we're human beings, but we're criminalized as if we're something other than fathers, mothers, doctors, lawyers and community leaders who are very much here," she said. "It's students, it's families and it's workers."

Nuñez said there is still concern that Trump will repeal former President Obama's order shielding undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children from deportation that makes them eligible for driver's licenses, work permits and other resources.

Trump's executive order signed Jan. 25 gives federal immigration officers more discretion on deportation proceedings, including those in the country illegally who are not yet charged with a separate crime but who, in the judgment of an officer, pose a risk to public safety or national security.

Since then, pro-immigration activists and city leaders across the country have sought ways to combat the action but there are also efforts to fortify Trump's crackdown on illegal immigration.

Under Johnson's legislation, for instance, cities could not stop local officials from sending or receiving information from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; maintaining information on a person's immigration status; or exchanging information with other government entities. The proposal says each "law enforcement officer has a duty to cooperate with state and federal agencies and officials" on enforcing the country's immigration laws.

Louisville police officers do not enforce federal immigration laws and currently do not arrest people for living illegally in the U.S., according to the mayor's office. But when asked if the proposal in the state House would impact their policies toward undocumented immigrants, Metro Police spokesman Dwight Mitchell would only say they do not comment on pending legislation.

Reporter Phillip M. Bailey can be reached at (502) 582-4475 or pbailey@courier-journal.com

Cross-posted from Courier Journal. Originally posted on Sunday, February 12, 2017.