Nearly 100 people packed into Keene City Council chambers Thursday night for a hearing on a resolution that would encourage Keene police to limit their cooperation with federal immigration authorities.
“These policies will protect the privacy of residents, clarify the responsibilities of and the limitations on the Keene Police Department’s involvement in federal immigration enforcement and prevent unwarranted detention beyond the norm for any given infraction,” said Joe Schapiro, a member of the Keene Immigration and Refugee Partnership, the group proposing the resolution.
The resolution would encourage the city’s police department to ask about immigration or citizenship status only in connection “to a legitimate law enforcement purpose.”
It also recommends that police assist federal immigration authorities and detain individuals on their behalf only if those people “are involved in violent criminal behavior, are in violation of NH State felony laws, or have an outstanding criminal warrant.”
“We are not accusing the police department of doing anything wrong; we know of no incidents of racial profiling or targeting immigrants in any way,” Schapiro said. But, he added, “It’s time to act proactively.”
The resolution, though nonbinding, echoes a nationwide debate over the role of local police agencies in enforcing federal immigration law.
Amid efforts to beef up immigration enforcement, the Trump administration has threatened to withhold federal grant money from so-called sanctuary cities, or municipalities that limit their cooperation with federal immigration authorities in one form or another.
The administration has claimed that by harboring undocumented immigrants, such jurisdictions undermine public safety. Proponents of sanctuary city policies, meanwhile, say the measures make undocumented immigrants more likely to cooperate with police and keep local resources from being used to enforce federal laws.
As divisive as the issue has proved nationwide, the audience that turned out for the City Council’s finance, organization and personnel committee meeting Thursday night appeared unified in its support for the resolution.
In addition to Schapiro and Susan Hay, another member of the Keene Immigrant and Refugee Partnership who introduced the resolution alongside him, 13 members of the public spoke — all in favor.
Many invoked America’s historical image as a nation of immigrants, and shared personal stories about ancestors, relatives and friends who arrived in the country from elsewhere. Some pointed out the economic value of immigration, especially in areas like the rural Northeast that have trouble attracting and retaining young workers. One person read a poem he had composed titled “Immigrant Foundation of America.”
Sandra Neil Wallace praised the hard work and generosity of many immigrants she knows in the area.
“I want them to feel as safe as I do in the city of Keene, and I really believe that this resolution is a giant step forward,” she said.
Neil Wallace, originally from Canada, is one of three naturalized U.S. citizens who spoke at Thursday’s meeting.
Mohammed Saleh, who arrived from Bangladesh in 1988, described the pride he felt at his naturalization ceremony. But he also worries his two children, who were born in the U.S., could face undue police inquiries without policies against that.
“They could very well be stopped one day for traffic violations and subjected to unwarranted questioning of their citizenship status, simply because of the color of their skin,” he said. “That is a very unpleasant thought. I think I could say that my kids and I have more likelihood of being questioned than most people in this room.”
Lindsay Bartlett said she came to the United States from Britain in 1980 and was an “illegal alien” for years.
“I did a lot of things I shouldn’t, but I’m English, and I have white privilege,” she said, adding that every immigrant should be given the same benefit of the doubt.
The Keene Immigrant and Refugee Partnership is an affiliate of the Monadnock Progressive Alliance, a local advocacy group, but supporters of the resolution weren’t limited to liberals. Ian Freeman, a well-known libertarian activist, said local police should “protect and serve” those who live here, not the federal government’s interests.
For all the evident support, the measure still has legal and procedural hurdles to clear.
City Manager Elizabeth A. Dragon said an initial review turned up potentially “problematic” language, citing a state law that bars city councils from setting policing policy.
Schapiro stressed that the resolution’s language is nonbinding. The group has sought feedback from Keene police Chief Steven Russo, Mayor Kendall W. Lane and several city councilors, he said.
The committee voted 5-0 to put the resolution on more time, so city staff can work with the Keene Immigrant and Refugee Partnership to refine the language.
Dragon said after the meeting that the purpose of that process will be to craft a resolution that passes legal muster while matching the petitioners’ intent.