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Could Travel Ban Encourage Lansing To Become A Sanctuary City?

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WKAR File Photo
The city of Lansing is drafting a resolution to call itself a "sanctuary" city.

The city of Lansing is home to nearly 800 settled refugees from some 30 countries. An effort to declare the city a sanctuary appears to be gathering strength.

In the midst of the national outcry over President Trump's immigration travel ban, local governments are scrambling to find legal cover. While some cities like Miami are complying with the ban, others have become emboldened to resist it.

The city of Lansing is home to nearly 800 settled refugees from some 30 countries. An effort to declare the city a sanctuary appears to be gathering strength. Now, as it considers its next steps, Lansing is standing its ground.

Almost immediately after the president's executive order took effect last Friday, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero began to coordinate his city's response. He spent time Monday with a blue-ribbon panel of local leaders to talk about the order, which in part bars residents of seven specific countries from entering the U.S. for 90 days.

By the end of the day, Bernero issued a scathing statement aimed squarely at the White House.

Its message? Lansing is pushing back.

"We will be nimble, we will be organized," says Bernero. "This is just the beginning of a long fight."

Hours later, the city council voted to draft a new resolution to declare Lansing a "sanctuary" city.

Lansing already formally identifies itself as a "welcoming city." But the semantics are a little fuzzy. "Welcoming" doesn't pass a legal definition, and it would seem the term "sanctuary" is also up for some scrutiny.

In a written statement from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, CEO Tom Cochran says while the executive order defines a sanctuary jurisdiction as one that has in effect, "a statute, policy or practice that prevents or hinders enforcement or federal law," he adds the definition is "open to broad interpretation."

Bernero says he believes some communities might readily comply with the ban so as not to become a target in the federal cross hairs. But not Lansing.

"We will insist on being a target," states Bernero. "We're not trying to pick a fight, but we're not going to shrink from a fight. And we believe that we are standing up for our brothers and sisters. We believe we are standing up for the America that brought us here."

But the America that brings immigrants here today is now at a standstill. And the ban also affects refugees, who fall into their own protective status.

Judy Harris is director of refugee services at St. Vincent Catholic Charities in Lansing. She says the past three days have been devastating for her clients who are hoping to re-unite with loved ones.

"They were ready to go," says Harris. "They were on the plane. They've said their goodbyes, they've cut their ties. They've done all of that to be able to come, and they were halted. It's hard because we're the ones that have to tell them that they're not going to be able to come, and it's hard for us to explain why."

The ban delays legal refugees from arriving in the U.S. for 120 days. Harris says after that, she expects to receive far less than the 750 refugees she planned for in 2017.

The executive order has the support of Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who said in a Facebook post on Monday that President Trump "is placing the security of Americans first."

Cities that declare themselves as sanctuaries could run the risk of losing federal funding. In Lansing, that translates to $6.5 million a year. That money fills many pots, from community development block grants to law enforcement to transportation.

Mayor Virg Bernero acknowledges it would hurt Lansing to lose those earmarks. He says the city would adjust its budget to compensate.

But Bernero is more concerned that the federal government might coerce Lansing into compliance. He fears the police force could be deputized to round up the city's foreign-born population. Bernero says he's prepared to take that issue to court, if necessary.

"The bottom line is, we are not an arm of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). We are not an arm of the immigration service, and we will not be."

The Lansing City Council could vote on a proposed sanctuary city resolution as early as February 13. The city of East Lansing is considering a similar measure.

Kevin Lavery served as a general assignment reporter and occasional local host for Morning Edition and All Things Considered before retiring in 2023.
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