The former alderman who submitted the resolution making Somerville a sanctuary city for illegal immigrants in 1987 said this week he stands by his vote that allowed immigrants with questionable documentation status to access city services.
Former Ward 4 Alderman and current Register of Probate John Buonomo said the resolution made it clear to city employees that they did not have to inquire about documentation status before offering help to city residents. According to records on the city’s Web site, Buonomo submitted the sanctuary city resolution at the April 23, 1987 Board of Aldermen meeting.
The measure was signed into law by then-Mayor Eugene C. Brune and 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 passed 9 to 2 and supported by future United States congressman, and former Ward 5 alderman, Michael E. Capuano. It was originally granted a two-year period of application and was extended indefinitely in 1989.
Sometime during the 1990s, Buonomo said, the ordinance was repealed and replaced with the Safe City Resolution which asserted the same basic principles. People had begun to believe a sanctuary city meant illegal immigrants were immune to federal laws, he said, and that was an incorrect perception —- the resolution was meant to encourage safety and trust in local officials among immigrant populations.
“It was not our job to do the work of [Immigration and Naturalization Services],” he said. “Is it a teacher’s job to turn in a child she thinks may not have the appropriate immigration documents? Is it a police officer’s job to turn in someone who went to him for help?”
Buonomo said an INS official spoke at a public hearing on the issue when aldermen first took it up and told them it would make federal authorities jobs more difficult.
In the 1980s a wave of Central American immigrants came to Somerville, escaping unstable and violent military regimes in their homelands. Alderman-at-Large John M. Connolly was alderman for Ward 6 at the time and said he voted in favor of the resolution because of public safety concerns. He said newcomers from El Salvador and Nicaragua were afraid to call the police and fire departments for help because of deportation fears.
“People were saying there’s a sign down in Haiti telling people to go to Somerville, they will take care of you there. But that is not what it was about. It was a safety issue,” he said.
The city’s immigration policy was thrust into the national spotlight last month when Republican presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani responded to criticism from rival Mitt Romney who said New York City was “at the top of the list” of sanctuary cities. Giuliani said Romney’s criticism was hypocritical because Romney had done nothing as governor of Massachusetts to address the sanctuary city status of Cambridge, Somerville and Orleans.
Buonomo, who calls himself a “proud Democrat” said the term sanctuary city has been abused and misinterpreted.
“There is a perception that sanctuary city means people can do whatever they want and be immune from the law. That is not what it says, if people are violating the law they will be arrested. But if they are living within the law, they are not going to be hassled by city officials when they need help,” he said.