SALEM, Mass. — The mayor and police chief in this north of Boston community are holding off on their support for what has become, in recent months, a controversial proposal to establish Salem as a sanctuary city.
The proposed ordinance, shared via Facebook by city councilor David Eppley on Tuesday, would prohibit all Salem, Massachusetts, employees — including police — from assisting in the enforcement of civil federal immigration law.
On Wednesday, Mayor Kim Driscoll and police chief Mary Butler said they support creating a welcoming atmosphere for immigrants, but are not sure the sanctuary city concept proposed by Eppley is the right way to achieve that goal.
"I took an oath of office. I need to uphold all the laws," Driscoll said. "We have concerns about whether or not this ordinance would comply with federal law."
The proposed ordinance would establish Salem as a "city and sanctuary for peace." Police would be prohibited from "assisting or cooperating" with federal immigration officials on investigations, detentions or arrests related to violations of civil federal immigration laws. The prohibition does not apply when dealing with a person of interest in a criminal investigation, Eppley said.
He said he proposed the ordinance in response to the presidential election of Donald Trump, who has vowed to create a deportation task force and end sanctuary cities. Several communities around the country, including some in Massachusetts, have established themselves as sanctuary cities that will not assist in the deportation of illegal immigrants.
Eppley said he believes Salem is already a welcoming city and that local police have not been involved in enforcing federal immigration laws. But he felt it was important to put that practice in writing.
"Right now if you have an undocumented Latino woman in the Point who is facing domestic violence, she can feel comfortable calling the Salem Police Department," he said. "I wanted to see that maintained and that we don't have federal interference requiring the Salem Police Department to go against what they've been doing for decades."
Driscoll and Butler both said Wednesday they did not see Eppley's proposed ordinance until it was made public and they have concerns about its potential impact.
The city receives close to $11 million in federal funding, Driscoll said, and she does not want to see that jeopardized. Trump has said he will cut off federal funding to sanctuary cities.
As the daughter of a naturalized U.S. citizen whose mother was born and grew up in the West Indies, Driscoll said it’s important to her that all immigrants "feel respected, valued and heard."
"I know the aftermath of the presidential election has left many residents anxious and fearful," she said. "I want to let them know we're not going to tolerate hate toward our Latino friends and neighbors, regardless of their immigration status.
"But I do really have some concerns about how best to do that. We need to start a conversation through a coalition of more people than were involved in the crafting of this ordinance. I hope this doesn't become a lightning rod issue. I'm really worried about that because we're trying to build bridges in Salem, not walls."
Butler said she is planning to meet with Eppley and others who crafted the ordinance later this week to discuss its details.
"I get the intent," she said. "I'm just not sure about the particulars of it in terms of law enforcement and our oath of office."
Ana Nuncio, president of the Salem Latino Leadership Coalition, said establishing the city as a sanctuary city would be a "reassuring measure" to local immigrants, many of whom are worried about being detained or deported after Trump takes office.
"There is great unease in our community," Nuncio said. "We are hearing from several parent groups that their children are expressing anxiety because they're afraid when they get home from school their parents won't be there. A measure of that kind would go a long way toward reassuring them that Salem is a city that's protective and supportive of the most vulnerable members of the community."
There is so much concern about deportations once Trump takes office, Nuncio said, that the Latino Leadership Coalition has been holding workshops to come up with strategies, including "non-violent resistance."
State Rep. Paul Tucker, D-Salem, said local police are already prohibited from enforcing federal immigration law, so he supports that concept. But he said it would be counter-productive to not allow police to cooperate with federal officials.
"Law enforcement is a two-way street," Tucker, a former Salem police chief, said. "What happens when we call them? Are they going to say, 'You're not helping us so we're not helping you'? Salem police should not be doing roundups of people that are undocumented. But not cooperating (with federal agencies), I think that goes too far."
The proposed ordinance is scheduled to go before the city council on Dec. 8.
Leighton writes for the Beverly, Massachusetts Salem News.