Bristol Council affirms town’s support for immigrant rights
Council stops short of passing a law to declare Bristol a sanctuary town
The Bristol Town Council threw the town’s support behind immigrant rights last week, approving a resolution to ensure a “commitment to equal, respectful and fair treatment, regardless of their immigration, ethnic or religious status.”
The resolution, which the council passed unanimously last Wednesday, states that no town employee or elected official will work to enforce federal immigration laws, and no town employee or official will report or register any individuals based on their immigration status, race, ethnicity or religion. Town employees will be barred from withholding any public information from residents, regardless of their immigration status.
The Bristol Police Department, the resolution states, has a mission to enforce local and state laws, and will interact with federal authorities according to the state Attorney General’s recommendations.
“In Bristol, we’re committed to equal, respectful and fair treatment of all people,” Councilman Tim Sweeney said. “We need to consider what makes Bristol great, what makes Rhode Island great, what makes the United State great, and that’s our diversity. We are a melting pot.”
The council stopped short of approving an ordinance proposal brought forth by a resident group working with the RI American Civil Liberties Union that would have denoted Bristol as a sanctuary town. The ordinance would bar local and state law enforcement officers from enforcing federal immigration laws and limit state and local cooperation with federal immigration officials seeking sensitive information about immigrants. It would also ban the use of state or local money to facilitate a federal registry based on race, gender, sexual orientation or immigration status.
“I personally know of a documented immigrant who is feeling fearful. I take that and consider the feelings of those who are undocumented,” Bristol resident Nancy Hood said in support. “Particularly Muslim families are feeling a lot of fear, not only because of the ramping up of arrests and deportations of immigrants across the country, but also because of the hateful, anti-immigration speech that’s coming from the White House. This is the atmosphere we are living in, so I think it’s really important that we in Bristol do everything we can to be a caring community and to provide the supports that we can.”
Mike Kendall, a retired Episcopal priest living in Bristol, spoke of the need to protect those most vulnerable among us, particularly immigrants.
“There is a huge concern about how we care for the poorest of the poor, especially immigrants,” Rev. Kendall said, adding courthouses and places of worship should be free from immigration raids. ““They should not be venues for ICE to come in and grab people.”
Council Chairman Nathan Calouro, while expressing support for immigrant rights, said an ordinance — which would establish an official Bristol law — would go too far, instead recommending a less weighty resolution drafted by the town’s solicitor.
“It’s my belief that an ordinance is not appropriate in this instance,” Mr. Calouro said. “A local ordinance is designed to uphold local laws. It is our job; it is our duty to uphold the law, whether it’s local state or federal. On a local level, I think we can resolve that we believe in the sanctity of life. And I think that is an appropriate step for this council.”
Councilwoman Mary Parella agreed with Mr. Calouro that approving a local ordinance drafted by the ACLU would not be appropriate. The Bristol Police Department is not suddenly going to be deputized by federal immigration authorities if the council doesn’t pass a new law, she said.
“I do resent the ACLU trying to jam this down every community’s throat, with we’re not compassionate if we don’t,” Ms. Parella said. “That really bothers me. I think we do many, many things in this community very well. And to say that we don’t have our values straight if we don’t pass an ordinance the ACLU wants, I don’t think is fair. What would be appropriate is supporting what our solicitor came up with, which lays out what we already do.”
Councilman Andy Tyska, noting that the town of Jamestown has adopted the ordinance, said the council should not rule out the ordinance and should seek further feedback from the town solicitor. He referred to the resolution as an important first step, but said the council should not rule out considering an ordinance in the future.
Most in attendance spoke in favor of the resolution and ordinance, including Greg Hall, a plumber from Bristol, who pointed out that immigrants are necessary to fill the labor force. Undocumented immigrants, he said, are not criminals, but are often in the country because they were recruited to do a certain job, and may have simply overstayed a visa.
“The people who are against immigration say immigrants are coming here to steal our jobs,” Mr. Hall said. “If that’s the truth, then why can’t we find plumbers? Why can’t Electric Boat find welders? We needed them. Why are we going to persecute them now? This is not serving anybody’s purpose. The anti-immigration people are loud, vocal well-organized, and have a lot of money behind them, so it’s up to people like us to stand up against that.”
One resident spoke against the proposal. Pete Hewitt said immigrants who are in the country legally have nothing to fear. However, those who are undocumented have skipped ahead of legal immigrants who have waited years to get into the country. The rule of law must protect them and the residents of the country, he said.
“I know people are very upset and they believe the current administration is the boogeyman, but we live in perilous times,” Mr. Hewitt said. “We live in one country with one system of laws. If the federal government requests local law enforcement to assist in holding that person long enough for the feds to come in and take him into custody, then I don’t think that’s asking too much. Once we lose respect for the rule law in this, the breakdown in local, federal, state law enforcement is something we all need to be concerned about.”