Since President Trump’s election, Newton and Salem have entered the debate over whether to become sanctuary cities and shield immigrants from aggressive enforcement. But suburbs like Acton and Arlington are exploring the idea as well.
A group of Acton residents is pushing for the community of 22,000 people 25 miles west of Boston to become a “sanctuary town” — a move they hope will help allay the fears of undocumented immigrants worried about being arrested or deported.
“It’s pretty obvious that given this administration, there are a number of communities that are in fear right now — Muslims, Jews, people who are gay, lesbian or transgender, people with disabilities,’’ said Danny Factor, a local lawyer and activist who is part of the group, Let’s Make Acton a Sanctuary Town. “We are concerned about people being scared in town.’’
Factor said the proposal is still in the works, but the designation would prohibit local police from questioning, apprehending, arresting, or detaining someone on the basis of federal immigration law.
Trump recently issued an executive order authorizing federal officials to bar sanctuary cities such as Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville from receiving federal funds, except when needed for law enforcement.
The Acton group held its first meeting Thursday night and many members plan to attend Monday night’s Board of Selectmen meeting, during which a discussion about becoming a sanctuary town is on the agenda. The meeting is at 7 p.m.
In Arlington, selectmen recently voted to place a resolution on the Town Meeting warrant that would make Arlington a “sanctuary town” or “Trust Act” community. The final wording is being worked out with the Arlington Human Rights Commission.
But the sanctuary movement has also attracted opponents. Dozens of people carrying signs saying “No Sanctuary City” protested outside Newton City Hall in mid-January as officials debated the city’s role in policing undocumented immigrants.
Steve Kropper, an Arlington resident and co-chair of the Massachusetts Coalition for Immigration Reform, said he is concerned about the president’s immigration policies but does not think cities and towns should limit the powers of local police.
“Trump’s messages on immigration are odious, the sanctuary city movement is misguided,’’ he said. “Most of us want to reclaim the thoughtful middle ground on immigration.’’
Kropper said local police don’t typically arrest or question people for suspected immigration violations, but the option can be a useful policing tool. He said local police play a big role in helping serve as eyes and ears for the federal government.
“Let law enforcement prioritize crimes, and if that includes using immigration statutes then it would seem like bad policy to have 351 Massachusetts cities and towns set immigration and police policy,’’ he said.
Acton Selectwoman Katie Green said she has been independently exploring the idea of a sanctuary town and recently asked for guidance from state Senator Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat who has proposed state legislation to protect undocumented immigrants.
“I was concerned with the rhetoric during the campaign and the transition and that’s only been bolstered by the actions of the president,’’ Green said. “Acton is a diverse community and I want to make it understood that we’re a welcoming community and not discriminating against or negative toward people based on their race, ethnicity, or status.’’
Eldridge has filed the Massachusetts Trust Act, which would direct Massachusetts law enforcement officials not to arrest or detain people for federal immigration purposes. He has also filed The Safe Communities Act, which he says would protect the civil rights of state residents by making sure tax dollars are not used to help the Trump administration deport immigrant families or to create a Muslim registry.
Factor said his group plans to work with Acton officials, including the Police Department, to come up with a sanctuary proposal that would go before Town Meeting this spring.
He said if the Board of Selectmen does not put an article on the Town Meeting warrant, a group of residents would collect signatures and submit a citizen’s petition. He said his group plans to meet weekly while working on the proposal and will also likely hold standouts in town.
“The other thing is making people feel safe, loved, and welcoming and that can be done in standouts,’’ he said.
Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.