Stand with Facts, Not Fear on Welcoming Town Resolution

Summary: The proposed Welcoming Town Resolution that Town Meeting will consider Monday is an opportunity for the town to stand by our police and our fellow Belmontonians. It reaffirms the importance of community policing in keeping all of us safe by strengthening the bonds of trust between law enforcement and the public. 

Belmont Town Meeting members should stand up for our public safety officers and the long tradition of community policing that has kept our town safe. And that means voting “YES” to support Article 10, the Welcoming Town Resolution.

With a slew of heated comments and rumors making the rounds, it is important that Town Meeting members vote based on facts, not fear when considering the proposed Welcoming Community resolution Monday evening. I’ve written this blog post to explain my thinking on Welcoming Town.

What’s this Welcoming Town stuff all about, anyway?

Here are the facts about the Welcoming Town Resolution to consider:

  • Its purpose is to signal Town Meeting’s (and thus Belmont’s) support for the continuation of community-based policing by fostering trust between Belmont residents and the Belmont PD
  • It was written with the oversight of and input from Belmont’s Police Department
  • It reaffirms existing Belmont PD practices such as:
    • not detaining people solely on immigration status
    • not inquiring about the immigration status of those who come to the police seeking help
    • not keeping a list or index of people suspected of being in the country illegally
  • It continues the Belmont PD’s practice of cooperating with federal, state and local criminal and civil investigative agencies (like Immigration and Customs Enforcement) in exercising their lawful objectives by:
    • making any information that the Belmont PD maintains available to those agencies
    • holding individuals in response to a detainer request by ICE when those individuals are already in custody by Belmont PD for violations of state or local laws

If we already do this stuff, why pass a Welcoming Town Resolution at all?

So why pass a resolution at all? It’s simple: community policing is the bedrock of Belmont’s public safety system. At its heart, community policing relies on trust and the free flow of information between the police and those they protect. We all know the saying “if you see something, say something.” But implicit in that is the idea that, in approaching the police about something you witnessed or heard about, you won’t be targeted or an object of suspicion because of your accent, the color of your skin, or dress or demeanor. People who fear they will be targeted simply won’t report crimes they witness or even those they are the victim of (as this article from Sunday’s New York Times highlights). That allows criminals to continue operating in Belmont, endangering us all.

The Welcoming Town resolution makes it clear that everyone who lives in Belmont, regardless of their immigration status, country of origin, their accent or skin color, should feel free to approach a Belmont Police Officer with information about a crime or concern. Their eyes and ears, added to all of ours, keeps our community safe.

Is that all?

No. That’s not all. It is also true that we’re living at a time during which the laws, norms of behavior and even the Constitutional protections that have kept us safe and free are being challenged. To be clear: there have been no new immigration laws passed since November. The laws that the current Administration is enforcing are the laws that are on the books and have been for years. If we, as a community, think they are too harsh, then we should endeavor to change them.

However, there are policy makers and officials – especially in Washington D.C. – who would like to push the envelope of what actions and behaviors are Constitutionally permitted in their zeal to enforce immigration laws, and that’s where the Welcoming Town Resolution comes in.

Belmont’s existing policies, which have served this community ably for years, are in line with the U.S. Constitution, the laws of the State of Massachusetts and court rulings from the Supreme Court on down that stretch back more than 30 years. (There’s an excellent article in Time that reviews some of those arguments.) Those rulings make it clear that local communities and states cannot be dragooned by Federal authorities. The Department of Homeland Security and ICE are responsible for protecting our borders and enforcing immigration laws (the violation of which is a civil, not criminal matter). There’s no question about that. But ICE cannot forcibly deputize the Belmont Police to do their job.

Won’t we lose gazillions of dollars in federal funding?

Nor can federal authorities strong-arm communities like Belmont by threatening to withhold promised funding for equipment, education or anything else granted for other purposes. Fears about losing federal funding are understandable, given the bellicose rhetoric from Washington D.C. But our Town of Homes stands on solid legal footing with its existing police policies and in the belief that courts will look askance at any effort by the Executive branch or Congress to exceed their Constitutional authority to punish this town or others for simply abiding by the law and Constitution.

In fact, towns that do comply with the current administration are also taking risks. The current administration’s enthusiasm for expedited arrest and detention and deportation means that legal, permanent residents or even U.S. citizens caught up in ICE enforcement actions could be illegally departed in violation of their 4th Amendment rights. That could expose the Town to lawsuits filed by the ACLU and other civil liberties groups. Just as sticking with Belmont’s existing community policing policies has potential (if unlikely costs) Town Meeting members should realize that complying with federal authorities could have considerable costs for the town, as well.

Anything else?

It wouldn’t be Blogging Belmont if I didn’t wrap in a bit of inspiring, progressive thought. This whole debate and atmosphere of fear, distrust and threats within which it is playing out recall me to one of our truly great presidents, FDR, and his first inaugural speech which took place in the depths of The Great Depression – a crisis that shook the very foundations of our nation. Rather than highlighting the “American carnage,” of which there was plenty to note at the time, FDR used his inaugural to rally his listeners to battle something far more primal: fear. Here’s what he said:

“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. And I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.”

In some ways, this is what Belmont Town Meeting is being asked to do: to stand up to fear – “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror” – and assert our own values and identity and hope for a brighter tomorrow. We can do that not by turning against each other in this dark, dark hour, but by standing together as One Belmont. I hope you’ll join me in voting for Article 10 and reaffirm Belmont as a Welcoming Town.

  • Mike

    Some, including our town treasurer who voiced an opinion in the local press, have expressed concern that we could be cut off or excluded from federal grants for our town if we vote yes on Article 10. It’s worth pointing out that the only federal law that has any bearing on this is 8 U.S.C. §1373, which prohibits localities from receiving the Department of Justice’s Byrne Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program funds if they prohibit local employees, including police, from answering questions of and providing information on request to the Department of Homeland Security. Nothing in current town practices or the proposed Article 10 institutes such a prohibition, so the town is not financially at risk in any way even though we DO NOT receive Byrne JAG grant funds.