NEWTON — Dozens of people with American flags and signs saying “No Sanctuary City” protested Wednesday night outside Newton City Hall as officials debated the city’s role in policing undocumented immigrants.
Opponents said efforts to craft a city ordinance controlling the role of police and local officials in immigration enforcement would risk public safety and federal dollars that come to Newton.
But backers of such an ordinance, including Mayor Setti Warren and several city councilors, said the guidelines are necessary to protect a marginalized group of people.
“I think Newton wants to stand together with other communities in this country that are grasping with these issues,” Councilor Susan Albright said in an interview.
While details of the ordinance remain in flux — Warren proposed one version, while Albright and a group of councilors drafted another — the intent is to have formal rules in place to govern when police and other Newton officials can review someone’s immigration status and cooperate with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Exceptions would be if the undocumented person had a felony conviction, was on a terror watch list, or posed a “serious subjective threat.”
If the proposal is approved, Newton would join several other Massachusetts cities, including Boston and Somerville, that have taken public stances limiting their cooperation with immigration enforcement.
“To be forced to enforce the federal immigration law is an unconstitutional burden on the sovereignty of every community in the nation, and should be resisted on those grounds,” said former Mayor David Cohen.
But winning public support could be difficult.
Tempers flared repeatedly throughout the roughly three hour hearing — members of the public could be heard bickering with each other and with speakers — and Councilor Allan L. Ciccone Jr. warned the crowd he’d clear the room if there were too many disruptions.
Before the hearing, dozens of protesters stood outside City Hall, many carrying signs demanding “No Sanctuary City” status for Newton.
“I love my country, and I don’t want illegal immigrants who are felons in my city, where my wife and mother live,” said Gerry Marrocco, who described himself as a supporter of legal immigration. “We are going to insanity if we make this a sanctuary city.”
Bob Tonelli said Newton city councilors were not living up to their responsibilities by proposing the new rules.
“Councilors are voted in to uphold the laws of the land and the Constitution, and not go the wrong way,” he said.
The immigration issue isn’t new — President Barack Obama removed an estimated 2.5 million people during his tenure — but has come under renewed scrutiny since the election of Donald Trump, who pledged during the presidential race to deport millions of undocumented immigrants and build a wall along the US-Mexico border.
Bryan Barash, a member of the Newton Democratic City Committee, said the change is needed to help build trust with the city’s undocumented population.
“They should know they can come to the police if they have an issue, that they have nothing to fear, that we are a city that welcomes people,” Barash said.
But others who spoke at the meeting said the city should be supporting immigration law, and not give undocumented residents a new reason to remain.
“I can’t imagine this wonderful city, which I’ve come to fall in love, is contemplating this suicide mission,” Susan Huffman told city councilors.
Virginia Gardner said councilors weren’t elected to focus on immigration or on undocumented immigrants, but instead should focus on the city’s other residents.
“We are not here to fix it. It’s not your job,” said Gardner of federal immigration laws. “You are here to keep us safe.”
Opponents of the proposed ordinance also pointed to concerns that Trump would slash federal money for cities that didn’t support immigration law enforcement. Brooke Lipsitt countered that argument, suggesting there is strength in numbers as other communities enact similar rules.
“The more communities, the more states... there are across this nation that adopt welcoming ordinances such as the one you are considering, the more difficult it will be for our president or our Congress to take any action,” Lipsitt told councilors.
Ciccone said two City Council committees would continue to work on a proposed ordinance, which could come before the full board for a vote in February.
The mayor said in an interview that officials want all city residents, including undocumented immigrants, to feel safe and be able to approach police. Warren said police and other departments currently don’t work with ICE unless there’s a serious public danger, and the intention was to put that effort into city regulations.
“It was important for us to look at our practice and ensure that it was codified [so] we continue to be safe and welcoming,” said Warren, adding that the city would “resist change” if any new federal laws contradict the city’s policing measures.
In a policy guideline released late last year, the city said police handle situations with undocumented residents on a case-by-case basis, but police do not proactively seek someone’s immigration status. According to Warren’s office, out of about 2,000 arrests since 2011, only three have involved ICE.
Warren said he is working with city councilors on a merger of the two proposals, and hopes to have a new version in about two weeks. He called on residents to remain civil in the ongoing debate.
“What is incredibly important in this process is that we are respectful to one another,” Warren said.