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Yvonne Abraham

Springfield mayor tries ruling by whim

Faith leaders gathered at South Congregational Church in Springfield. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Call him Springfield’s strongman.

Mayor Domenic Sarno is upset that South Congregational Church has given sanctuary to Gisella Collazo. The undocumented Peruvian immigrant, who has lived in the United States for 17 years, and whose husband and children are US citizens, was ordered to leave the country on March 26. She is sheltering with her children at the historic church on Maple Street because immigration officers are unlikely to arrest her there.

Sarno does not like this one bit. He warned that the church was imperiling Springfield’s finances, citing Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ threat to withhold federal funding from sanctuary cities. Even though it’s the church, and not his city, that is providing the sanctuary. And even though the church is providing that sanctuary in keeping with its religious principles.


“Biblically, we are called to welcome the stranger and support people in need,” said Assistant Minister Louis Mitchell. “We are doing what a church does.”

Sarno also, and not for the first time, decried illegal immigration generally, calling it unfair to “all those immigrants, including my parents, who played by the rules and followed the legal immigration path into America.”

Ah, the old my-ancestors-followed-the-rules-eleventy-years-ago-why-can’t-you gambit. Here’s the thing about Sarno’s forebears, courtesy of genealogist Justin Cascio, who has examined the mayor’s family tree. Sarno’s great-grandfather appears to have been among the millions who arrived in the United States around the start of the last century, when the only rules Italian immigrants had to play by were: Get on a boat, don’t have tuberculosis, and swear you’re not an anarchist. His grandfather Domenico was born in Springfield, so was a US citizen, Cascio found. Which meant that, though he was born in Italy, Sarno’s father Alfonso was also a US national when he arrived in New York in 1948. The mayor would not comment on his ancestry, or anything else, on Friday.


In short, the wide-open path to citizenship Sarno’s family enjoyed no longer exists. So can we please stop using it as a cudgel?

Now, other mayors with Sarno’s convictions might be content to just use their bully pulpit to make their feelings known, but not Sarno. In addition to interfering with the free exercise of religion, he decided to bring the full force of city government to bear upon the church, ordering inspectors to look for code violations that could make it an unlawful shelter. In an e-mail, Sarno also directed city employees to “start the review process to strip them of their tax exemption status. Please again pursue to the fullest extent of the law. Thank you and God Bless.”

Tax exempt status is actually a federal matter, not a municipal one, but Sarno seems unmoved by such nuance. Ditto the rule of law — the notion that laws govern us, and not the whims of politicians. That cherished principle is but a gnat to be batted away by the mayor. His inspectors were back at the church on Thursday, but they found only minor violations. It must have been disappointing.

Whether or not you think Collazo should be deported, what Sarno is doing here is deeply disturbing.

“His threats are completely inappropriate,” said Bill Newman, an attorney at the ACLU in Western Massachusetts. “That he’d use the full power of his office . . . to impose his political views on a church is beyond the pale.”


That is not how America is supposed to work. But it’s how Sarno’s Springfield operates.

His high-handed ways seem awfully familiar, don’t they? Though the Democrat has occasionally distanced himself from the most mean-spirited of President Trump’s proclamations, Sarno looks awfully like the rule-of-law-shattering guy in the White House here.

You’d think that many among the 153,000 good people of Springfield would have a problem with all of this. But why should Sarno care? They sat out the last mayoral contest, when Sarno was reelected by just under 12,000 of the city’s 95,000 registered voters.

Perhaps now they’ll wake up.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.