Carbondale Corner: The tricky balance of a local immigration policy
“Would you rather be kind or right?” That’s a question that lived on our refrigerator for several years.
Clearly my wife, Holly, who posted it, knows me well and my tendency to lay down the law with my boys. They are middle schoolers now, but when they were younger, I struggled to find that balance between being a disciplinarian and being an understanding father. I am convinced that achieving that balance in parenting is an art. Not surprisingly, achieving that balance in community issues is equally challenging.
Earlier this year, four middle school students, Jessica Koller, Cassidy Meyer, Vanessa Leon and Keiry Lopez, proposed a resolution to guide Carbondale’s policy with respect to undocumented immigrants. Sure, I’d thought about immigration policy before, but not to the level the students were asking us to. It was quickly apparent that this issue was not clear cut and that we’d need to find some balance.
The policy’s primary point is to state clearly that “No town employee shall take action solely based on a person’s immigration status.” The policy also states that partnership with federal immigration officials requires Board of Trustees approval. It also outlines an outreach strategy with the Latino community to strengthen communication. The policy can be found on the Town of Carbondale’s home page.
Some would cringe at the thought of finding “balance” when it comes to the rule of law. I know this because we received a couple emails regarding the resolution we adopted. One responded that this balance we attempted to achieve in the resolution is “unAmerican, illegal and once again, disgusting.” It was clear by the tone of the email that there was deep frustration and perhaps even some rage buried in there. Despite this and some unfounded accusations, I felt compelled to think through the criticism.
It’s true that the federal government has laws that define legal immigration, and the fine print in those laws certainly comes into play with various aspects of local law enforcement. But to be clear, local law enforcement is not responsible for enforcing federal immigration law. Similarly they are not responsible for enforcing federal tax law and a myriad of other federal laws. I wonder if anyone would be disgruntled if we adopted a resolution stating that we will not enforce IRS regulations.
There are several reasons local police don’t enforce federal laws, but for me the most important reason local police should not enforce immigration law is that doing so instantly erodes the trust between law enforcement officers and the community that is essential to everyone’s safety. I would opine that for law enforcement in small communities, Carbondale being no exception, maintaining a trusted relationship with all aspects of the community should be priority No. 1.
The lack of trust from both sides was evident when Trustee Erica Sparhawk and I met with members of the immigrant community, and also with Chief Gene Schilling and Lt. Chris Wurtsmith of the Carbondale police. It was sobering to me to learn that serious crimes have gone unreported for fear of immigration enforcement repercussions.
It is vital to all residents that any person feel safe communicating with police about safety concerns. I also think our entire community is stronger and better off when our immigrant neighbors, documented or not, aren’t scared of their own shadows for fear of deportation. The recent DACA debate highlights the fact that many undocumented immigrants never committed a crime, they simply are trapped in legal limbo.
There was also more clarity as to why, what and how our police respond to immigrant issues and how in some cases asking for documentation actually benefits the immigrant. Our police department’s practice of not enforcing immigration law didn’t change with our resolution, but hopefully there will be increasing awareness that will foster that trust.
Unfortunately, today there is a hyperfocus on immigration enforcement on a national level, which in my opinion is unnecessarily driving a wedge between local law enforcement and communities. This was reinforced to me recently at a Mayor’s Summit where we discussed community policing issues. I learned that the lack of trust and anxiety around immigration issues is pretty common around the state. But how we solve them in Carbondale must be specific to our community.
I have always thought Carbondale was one of the better examples of community integration that I’ve experienced. It’s by no means one big happy family, but the Latino and Anglo communities coexist well. I am getting to know our police department better and respect and appreciate how they balance community policing with laying down the law. As my boys and my wife have taught me, the trick is knowing when and how to differentiate. In Carbondale, I think our police and our policies are striking a good balance.
Dan Richardson is mayor of Carbondale.