At an emergency meeting on Monday, the Newburgh City Council was united in its opinion that the city should remain a “fair and welcoming city.” The title means the city will not enforce federal immigration law, except in cases of a judicial warrant.
The issue at hand was the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grant funding that would pay for four police officers at the City of Newburgh Police Department.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, that funding may be contingent upon the city agreeing to allow immigration agents access to undocumented immigrants in city custody.
“It’s almost like a litmus test by the current administration to push back on the cities that have taken a stand on resisting a white supremacist in the White House,” said Councilwoman Karen Mejia at City Hall on Monday night. “Do we want to stand with the commitment we made earlier this year or are we going to retreat and adhere to harassment?”
The city received a letter from the Department of Justice dated Sept. 7 asking the city manager to sign a “certification of illegal immigration cooperation,” permitting the U.S. Department of Homeland Security access to undocumented immigrants held in city detention facilities and to “inquire as to his or her right to be or to remain in the United States.”
The request arrived a few months following the city council’s passage of a resolution declaring Newburgh to be a “fair and welcoming city” that “will not enforce federal civil immigration law, nor facilitate (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) deportation, except where legally required to do so.”
Though the letter did not directly state the city would lose grant funding if the certification was not signed, it stated applications from cities that “cooperate with federal law enforcement to address illegal immigration” would receive “additional consideration.” Mayor Judy Kennedy described it as a “blatant, strong-arm tactic.”
The Department of Justice sent cities around the country similar letters over the summer. “I believe there will be such an uproar over this, it won’t stand,” Kennedy said, noting the policy was opposed by both Governor Andrew Cuomo and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
The city’s “fair and welcoming city” status is essentially a softer version of “sanctuary city” status. An executive order signed by President Donald Trump earlier this year sought to block funding to sanctuary cities before it was struck down in the federal courts.
Last week, according to the Chicago Tribune, U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber ruled that U.S. Attorney Jeff Sessions had likely overstepped his authority in requiring sanctuary cities to cooperate with immigration agents in order to obtain public-safety grants.
The decision applied to Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grants, which the city has been awarded in the past, but its application to COPS Office grants was unclear on Monday.
City Corporation Counsel Michelle Kelson said the issue had yet to be settled by the federal courts. “We would cooperate only where we were legally required to do so,” she said, and the definition of “legally required” is still uncertain.
Regardless of the city’s status, Kennedy said, immigration officials would have access to immigrant detainees if they have a judicial warrant.
“I urge you not to go back from your promise,” Shannon Wong, director of the Lower Hudson Valley Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, urged the council. Laura Garcia pointed out that half of the city’s population is Latino. “There are a large number of undocumented immigrants living here,” she said, including children, students and business owners.
“I’m armored up,” said Councilman Torrance Harvey, expressing his commitment to stand by the resolution.
“I would suggest to the City Manager to apply for the grant… and see what happens,” said the mayor. “If they don’t want to help fund four extra police (officers), then so be it. We will find another way. Because this city has already proved we can do the impossible. We are doing it now.”
By SHANTAL RILEY