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A sanctuary city in spirit, but not by name

Newton Mayor Setti Warren.Wendy Maeda/Globe staff/file 2011/Globe Staff

Newton Mayor Setti Warren and Police Chief David MacDonald have proposed an ordinance detailing how the city will approach policing undocumented immigrants, all while making it clear that Newton is not adopting the label of “sanctuary city.”

“We believe that we have sound law enforcement practices and procedures that keep undocumented people, as well as citizens, safe,” Warren said in an interview. “With the term sanctuary city, there are various definitions people around the country have used. We should not adopt terminology that could be attached to policies that have nothing to do with what we’re doing.”

Instead, the city will be following a community policing approach called “One Newton,” which Warren said has been in development for a year, but used in practice by the Newton Police Department for many years prior.


The policy was unveiled earlier this month, but Warren decided to file the ordinance with City Council on Dec. 16 to make a stronger statement regarding the city’s commitment to undocumented immigrants.

“We decided it would strengthen the message if we docketed this as an ordinance as opposed to just filing this with the city clerk,” Warren said. “And we did clarify some language based on recommendations from councillors and the community.”

The guidelines initially stated that the Newton Police Department does not proactively seek an individual’s immigration status, but would handle situations pertaining to detaining undocumented immigrants on a “case by case” basis. That language caused some concern among advocates for immigrants.

In response to feedback from city councilors and advocacy groups, the city revised the language to state that the decision to detain someone is based on the nature of the suspected offense. The guidelines were also updated to reflect that all city employees cooperate with the policy, not just police officers.

In addition, the city will produce a yearly report documenting the number of individuals detained on an Immigration and Customs Enforcement hold or administrative warrant, or who are transferred to ICE custody.


Warren stressed that the city will only cooperate with ICE when the individual poses a threat to public safety.

“We don’t actively attempt to detain or report undocumented people that live here in Newton,” he said. “The only time we cooperate with ICE is if there is an individual that can cause serious public safety, and those are very rare here.”

But some City Council members feel the ordinance doesn’t go far enough. Emily Norton, Ward 2 Councilor at Large, was one of eight councilors to sponsor a separate docket item that was filed with City Council on Dec. 16.

The item requests an ordinance that, at minimum, specifies that no city employees inquire into an individual’s immigration status or cooperate with ICE “except in the case where that person has been convicted of a felony, is on a terrorist watch list, poses a serious substantive threat to public safety, or is compelled to by operation of law.”

“In addition to stronger language, we want to have a public discussion about these options,” Norton said. “So many people are interested, and we want to talk publicly about what a sanctuary city is, and what it does.”

The words “sanctuary city” are intentionally left out from ordinances filed by the mayor.

President-elect Donald Trump has promised to cut millions in federal dollars from sanctuary cities that limit their cooperation with ICE, which would include cities in Massachusetts such as Cambridge and Chelsea. Newton, for example, receives $1.7 million in federal community development block grants annually.


Warren said the decision not to use the term “sanctuary” is not about the threat of losing federal funding, but rather because the definition has no legal grounding and is vague.

“This is not about terminology; it’s about policing that keeps people safe,” he said. “We’re going to monitor federal policy, and if there’s change that goes against how we conduct community policing, we will resist that change. We believe that we have put a strong docket item forth that will keep our community safe and sends the message that we believe in this form of community policing.”

Since Jan. 1, 2011, there have been three ICE detentions out of approximately 2,000 arrests, Warren said. In each of those detentions, the individuals were flagged either by fingerprint record or outstanding warrants in other communities, and in one case the individual had been deported and came back, Warren said.

The city councilors’ docket item will be taken up by a committee in the coming weeks, Norton said. The mayor’s ordinance is subject to a City Council vote.

Allison Pohle can be reached at