Lowell passes on sanctuary city status

The city of Lowell took a pass last week on a citizen petition that would have added Lowell to the ranks of sanctuary cities such as Boston, Somerville, and Lawrence, saying that it already follows policies with the same effect.

Sanctuary cities opt not to actively assist federal authorities in deporting undocumented immigrants, and City Manager Kevin J. Murphy on Tuesday pointed to a police policy stating that the department will not conduct immigration investigations or inquire about immigration status.

“It is my opinion that the city has an established existing policy expressing its support and acceptance of all residents and therefore no further action is required,” wrote Murphy in a report submitted to the mayor and City Council Tuesday.


President Trump issued an executive order last month authorizing federal officials to withhold federal funding from cities with the “sanctuary city” label, and City Councilor Corey Belanger said Saturday that the risk of losing those critical funds was not worth the gain in restating a policy the city already follows.

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“The city of Lowell police force is not now, not ever, going to become an active deportation force,” said Belanger in a telephone interview. “We’re already, essentially, a sanctuary city. To come out and declare that, to be part of some national stance, is nothing more than grandstanding, in my opinion.”

Belanger serves as chair of the citywide opiate task force, which he said relies on $1.3 million in federal grant money to combat the deadly addiction crisis. Federal funds help fund the senior center, the Boys & Girls Club, and the YMCA, among other programs, he said.

“To risk that? No. I’ll have nothing to do with it,” said Belanger.

City Councilor William Samaras said he also found the petition redundant and feared that it would polarize the community. Samaras said he would rather focus on the work the city is already doing.


The city council recently moved to create a diversity council that will work with
UMass Lowell and will meet twice annually with groups from across the city to discuss problems.

“How do you ensure that people have a voice? You have to listen,” he said. “You can say ‘sanctuary city,’ you can say whatever you want, you can give terms. But if people aren’t listening then it’s all for naught.”

The city council did not vote the petition up or down, he said, but instead took no action.

Since Trump’s executive order, residents and officials in several cities and towns have explored the idea of becoming sanctuary cities, including Newton, Salem, Acton, and Arlington.

More than a quarter of Lowell’s residents are foreign born, according to the US Census, and the city has a large Cambodian population.


Lowell resident Sue Kim, who drafted the petition along with a group of other citizens, said she had heard the chief of police speak about the city’s policy in the past, but wanted something binding to guarantee that the policy would hold no matter what Trump does.

“We have such a large immigrant and refugee community, we’re so proud of saying we’re a city of immigrants,” said Kim. “We wanted the city council to show some leadership.”

The petition asked the city to adopt a “Trust Ordinance” that would reassure citizens that they were safe in Lowell.

“Lowell has long offered a safe haven to those in need of protection, including immigrants and refugees from across the world,” the petition read. “Since the days of the Underground Railroad and the Lowell mill girls, our city’s residents have stood up for what is just.”

Kim said she was disappointed that the council had not acted on it. Still, she said, the “sanctuary city” label would not have prevented federal immigration authorities from coming into Lowell to remove undocumented immigrants.

“This is one part of a larger struggle,” she said.

Evan Allen can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @evanmallen.