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Listening to immigrant voices (Sept. 22, 2017)

There is a wide range of voices speaking on both sides of the Sanctuary for Peace ordinance debate. What is sometimes lost in this discussion is the voice of Salem's immigrant community itself. That’s not surprising. Almost by definition the people most affected by the ordinance are the least likely to come forward to be heard on this or any other subject, including the issues that affect them most. This includes not just undocumented immigrants but many documented immigrants—the vast majority of our foreign born population—who call Salem home.

So it’s important to remember that the Sanctuary for Peace ordinance is, at heart, designed to help correct this situation. To reassure Salem’s immigrant community members that their voices matter, not just by custom but by law, and that that they will be heard by city officials, the Salem police, and by extension other institutions  (schools, health centers, etc.) with which immigrants interact daily and on which their families’ health and safety depend.  

One of the common claims of ordinance opponents is that since it doesn’t actually change existing policy and practice, it won’t make a difference. That it in fact creates confusion for immigrants about the kinds of protections Salem will afford them, and might attract more undocumented immigrants to the city. Many have blamed the effort to pass the ordinance as political correctness gone out of control, or a vain exercise on the part of local progressives to thumb their collective noses at the new administration.

We need to recall then how much the creation of the Sanctuary for Peace ordinance was driven by the voices of Salem's immigrants themselves. In the development of the ordinance a working group including city officials, Police Chief Butler, and representatives of local institutions, faith-based organizations, and community groups heard directly from Salem’s foreign born about their fears and anxieties. Immigrants—regardless of their status—expressed fears that their families would be separated and that mass deportations would involve local police officials.

While immigrants in Massachusetts and the U.S. have lived with such fears for a long time—and the sanctuary policies of cities like Boston, Somerville, Lawrence, Amherst and Northampton go back to the Obama era—it was the aggressive anti-immigrant rhetoric of the presidential campaign that brought them to a desperate pitch even before the election was over. These fears have been more than born out by the ruthlessly heightened enforcement practices of the new administration, under which arrests of undocumented immigrants with no criminal records have grown by 150%, and hardworking, long-resident immigrants with U.S.-born children are increasingly targeted at schools, hospitals and courthouses.

To immigrants in Salem, and not just those who are undocumented, the Sanctuary for Peace ordinance therefore clearly does matter. They are under no illusion that the existence of this ordinance will protect them from arrest and deportation by federal authorities. Both well-intentioned concerns that immigrants will be fooled into thinking the ordinance saves them from ICE and fear-mongering claims that it will make Salem into a magnet for the undocumented miss the point here. What the ordinance does do is assure our immigrant neighbors and friends, in no uncertain terms, that their voices will be heard and respected by city government and the institutions that ensure the safety and well-being of all Salem residents. Making sure that everyone who calls Salem home knows what the city stands for in this respect is the least the city can do.


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