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Every weekday morning CAI brings you coverage of local issues, news, and stories that matter. Join us for Morning Edition from 6 a.m. to 9a.m., with Kathryn Eident.

'Safe Community' Town Meeting Articles May Raise More Questions than Answers

T.S. Custadio
Harwich Town Hall. Harwich is one of several towns on the Lower Cape wrestling with declaring itself a "safe community," and what that could mean.

Residents in several Lower Cape towns will consider upcoming Town Meeting articles similar to the "sanctuary city" declarations in Boston and Somerville. Those declarations discourage local officials and police from enforcing federal immigration laws without a judge’s order.

As WCAI’s Kathryn Eident reports, some Cape residents think the declaration of a so-called "safe community" is vital to protecting immigrants’ rights, while others say the idea has raised more questions than answers.

Cape Cod is home to Rodrigo Sena, and has been for nearly 15 years. He loves it here—the quiet in the winter, the beauty of the beaches and the woods, the community.

“It’s easy to build roots, it's easy to get involved, and I feel like it’s a small village,” he said. “I see more potential in Cape Cod than in any other place.”

But lately, the Brazilian-born American citizen has felt nervous. Since the November elections, Sena says he’s noticed a difference in the way some people treat him. Here’s one example: people want to know his status. That’s a question he didn’t get before. But since the election, even people he’s known for years are now asking him if he’s here legally.

“People like to know and find out. Sometimes judgment—you know? Just by our skin color and by looking you can tell we’re not from here,” he said.  “It’s like if you ask someone how much money you have in your bank account—that can be rude.”

Sena should have nothing to fear; he became an American citizen more than a decade ago. But now the-32-year-old Hyannis resident worries about friends and colleagues who may not have a secure status in the United States.

“I was talking to a friend and she was like, ‘Rodrigo, what about if others—bad people—come after you or something,'” he said. “It’s just because of this whole situation, we never know, yeah?”

Discomfort like Sena’s is something Brewster resident Rod MacDonald hoped to address last fall when he organized the Safe Communities Coalition. The group drafted articles on upcoming Town Meeting warrants in Brewster, Harwich, Eastham, Orleans, and Wellfleet, calling for town officials to protect all residents and asking them to not enforce federal immigration law unless directed by a court order. The wording echoes policies in cities such as Boston and Somerville—except the articles don’t use the term "sanctuary city."  MacDonald likes "safe community" instead.

“It’s a place where there’s an agreement among the town and its officials that the local law enforcement won’t question persons about their documentation status and will not report to ICE [U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement] in the case of a minor infraction,” he explained. “If there’s a serious crime involved, that’s a different matter.”

There is no legal definition for the term "sanctuary city," and MacDonald’s careful wording reflects just how murky the question of "status" is—for both municipalities and immigrants. Without a strong federal immigration policy, the issue is left up to town and city officials.

Harwich Board of Selectmen Chairman Michael MacAskill worries local officials could violate the Constitution if they don’t cooperate with federal authorities.

“When we’re elected into a town office, we’re elected to uphold the Constitution of the United States. We take an oath,” he said. “I don’t see that I can ignore my oath and say you don’t have to follow a particular law.”

He says he’d rather not call attention to something he doesn’t think is an issue in the first place.

“What strikes me is that I’ve talked with police chiefs, and none of them remember immigration being an issue down here,” he said. “So why are we shedding so much light on it, and what message are we sending? I’ve got a lot more questions than answers.”

His board did not approve the Safe Communities petition on their upcoming Town Meeting warrant.

In nearby Brewster, selectmen voted in favor of supporting it on their Town Meeting warrant. Chairman John Dickson says the citizen’s petition clarifies existing town policies.

“We treat all residents in town the same, and we don’t take it upon ourselves to investigate issues of immigration status,” he said. “That’s something federal authorities do under their own aegis. That’s not our role and not something we’d take on.”

Dickson isn’t worried by the President’s threat to take federal funding away from municipalities that declare sanctuary status. He’s more concerned that people will stop calling local authorities because they’re afraid of being deported if they think local officials will ask about their status.

“Our feeling is, it’s more important to be clear with our residents about our policies and our practices,” he said.

Immigration lawyer Rachel Self says there’s already a system in place to catch and deport immigrants if they commit a crime.

“If somebody is out there breaking the law, say an assault and battery, or a drug violation, or beating somebody up, the law already allows the police to arrest the person,” she said. “You don’t need to target them because they’re yellow or have blue hair, or speak with an accent.”

Federal law also requires police to notify the FBI whenever they arrest someone. The FBI then works with federal immigration agents. If there’s a question, sometimes agents ask local authorities to detain that person. But holding someone without a warrant is illegal.

Self says it can be difficult to prove whether a person committed an immigration-related crime or simply committed an infraction. While it’s a crime to cross the border without proper documents, it’s only a civil infraction to stay in the U.S. when a document like a work visa lapses. That’s about as serious as getting pulled over for not using a turn signal.

“These are not things that should be getting people taken into custody,” she said.

Despite the confusion and the mistrust, Brazilian-born American citizen, Rodrigo Sena, tries to see the best in people and not judge them—even when he finds himself being judged.

“Let’s not make this a big deal,” he said. “I think we can build, and always build, a better community if we engage with each other, respect each other, and love each other. That would be a better community for everybody.”

He hopes that when residents go to their respective Town Meetings, they will do the same.

Town Meetings will be held on the following Mondays:

  • Wellfleet: April 24, 2017
  • Brewster: May 1, 2017
  • Eastham: May 1, 2017
  • Harwich: May 1, 2017
  • Orleans: May 8, 2017

Kathryn Eident is an award-winning journalist and hosts WCAI's Morning Edition. She began producing stories for WCAI in 2008 as a Boston University graduate student reporting from the Statehouse. Since then, Kathryn’s work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Cape Cod Times, Studio 360, Scientific American, and Cape and Plymouth Business Magazine.