Local group to lobby aldermen to reaffirm city's sanctuary status
By George P. Hassett
As Congress continues to fail to come up with an effective immigration reform plan, Somerville officials are also being forced to address the contentious issue. Centro Presente, an immigrant rights advocacy group based in Somerville and Cambridge, will lobby the Board of Aldermen to pass a resolution recognizing the rights of all immigrants to city services and support, regardless of documentation status, according to the organization’s executive director Elena Letona.
According to Letona, the group will also revive a controversial debate begun two decades ago when they ask aldermen to renew Somerville’s status as a sanctuary city. However, Centro Presente may be facing an uphill battle as anti-immigrant sentiment rises nationwide, and locally a similar resolution proposed last year was never passed.
At the May 11, 2006 Board of Aldermen meeting, nine aldermen and Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone sponsored a resolution stating, “That the city hereby reaffirms its long standing policies in support of all immigrants, and expresses its support for comprehensive immigration reform that combines a path to permanent status for immigrants already here with the humane enforcement of our nation’s borders.”
Despite being sponsored by enough aldermen to pass easily, the resolution was sent to committee where it has languished ever since. Ward 1 Alderman Bill Roche was the only alderman to strongly oppose the resolution, asking that the word “legal” be added before any reference to immigrants. He also raised an issue debated in the aldermanic chamber twenty years ago.
“This resolution is sanctuary city in disguise,” he said.
On April 24, 1987, the Somerville Sanctuary City Resolution was signed into law by then-Mayor Eugene C. Brune. In it, it was declared that the city’s “2,000 to 4,000 illegal immigrants were entitled to some of the basic rights and privileges as regular city residents.” The resolution was originally granted a two year period of application, but was extended indefinitely in 1989 by a 9 to 2 vote.
In the 1980s, a flood of Central American immigrants came to Somerville, escaping unstable and violent military regimes in their homeland, said current Alderman-at-Large John M. Connolly who was Ward 6 alderman at the time. Connolly voted in favor of the resolution and said it was a public safety issue because newcomers from El Salvador and Nicaragua would not call the police or fire departments for fear of being reported to federal immigration authorities.
However, he said he may not support a similar resolution proposed now because he does not want to create a perception of Somerville as being “a city with an open door policy.” He also said the number of illegal immigrants living in the city has increased greatly since 1987.
“I have no problem with Somerville being a city of immigrants and Somerville welcoming immigrants, but I draw the line at welcoming illegal immigrants,” he said.
Documentation status of the city’s immigrants was relevant to Roche when he spoke out against the 2006 resolution. He said illegal immigrants do not pay taxes and by using city services funded by taxpayers, they present an added burden to the city’s economy. “Blindly passing resolutions welcoming illegal immigrants is ludicrous. We can’t afford to support people who break the law and use city resources they don’t pay for. The taxpayers should not bear the brunt of the Board of Aldermen’s generosity,” he said.
And many in the community agree, he said. “I got dozens and dozens of favorable responses from people in the city. They were happy I stood up and stopped the resolution from passing.”
Roche, whose father was an immigrant from Ireland, said his colleagues on the board are afraid to express opinions that may be deemed politically incorrect. He said if other aldermen spoke out against welcoming undocumented immigrants, they would be targeted by special interest groups and perceived by some as being racist and discriminatory.
Curtatone said he continues to stand by the resolution he proposed last year and that the documentation status of Somerville residents is not something city departments should be concerned with.
At a “community building block party” organized by a Centro Presente youth program last week, supporters of immigrant rights said elected officials must set the tone for the rest of the city and pass a resolution reaffirming the city’s status as a welcoming community for immigrants.
“Anti-immigrant rhetoric has been on the rise for a year, it is urgent that cities take a stand in solidarity with their communities,” said Jessica Durrum, associate director of Centro Presente. Somerville in particular should be advocating for immigrants because it has the third largest immigrant population in the state and a history enriched by newcomers to the country, she said.
Youth Leadership Coordinator Wil Renderos said many in Somerville’s immigrant community are living in fear of federal organizations such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). “Last year, people were afraid to go to places like Sullivan Square and Maverick Square, centers where there are usually a lot of Latino’s, because they thought they may be taken away,” he said.
One of the block party’s organizers, Eimy Bonilla, 16, said a resolution supporting immigrants would help to bring people in the city together. “We should be united. We’re all born in one world, the only borders are the ones we make. We just want to get support and encouragement from our neighbors,” she said.
Roche said he is willing to speak with any group about his position on immigration issues. A compromise though may be difficult to come to on such a complex issue, he said.
“If this were easy, Congress would have already taken care of it,” he said.