This is an opinion piece written by Tompkins County Legislator Anna Kelles. It was NOT written by The Ithaca Voice. To submit an opinion piece, contact us at  

ITHACA, N.Y. On January 25th, 2017, President Trump issued an executive order suggesting that many of the immigrants in this country, particularly undocumented immigrants, are criminals that pose a threat to public safety.

It is the responsibility of our government at all levels to uphold public safety and those who indeed commit criminal acts should be prosecuted fairly and equally under the law. It is also a government responsibility, as outlined in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, to protect everyone’s “unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

This Tuesday, February 21st at 5:30pm in the Governor Daniel D. Tompkins Building (121 E. Court Street, 2nd floor chambers) the Tompkins County Legislature will be considering a resolution to maintain a safe, inclusive government and to preserve the protection, order, conduct, safety, health, and well-being of all persons in Tompkins County.

This resolution protects the rights of all residents of Tompkins County while maintaining strict adherence and full compliance with existing federal immigration law and aligns closely with the articles of the US Constitution.

The federal government has the macro level of responsibility to protect the country and its borders. This is why enforcement of immigration law is the exclusive purview of federal agencies. They have the staff, the funding, the training, and the resources to enforce complex and nuanced legislation and policy.

Unlike the federal government, local law enforcement is embedded deep in communities and has the responsibility of maintaining peace and public safety.

Imagine if you were a county sheriff trying to investigate a case of domestic violence but all the potential witnesses wouldn’t speak with you out of fear of being asked their immigration status?  The same could, for example, apply to drug cases or labor rights violations of migrant farm workers.

Studies show that crime rates in cities are lower if they do not attempt to implement immigration enforcement using local officers. For this reason it is the current practice of our local law enforcement to not ask about immigration status unless it is relevant to an investigation. They do not keep a registry and they do not detain individuals for federal officials unless given a judicial warrant. The proposed resolution formalizes these existing best practices.

The tenth amendment states that “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” A recent article by the National Conference of State Legislatures outlines the Supreme Court’s interpretation that “states and local governments cannot be required ‘to enact or administer a federal regulatory program.’”

They follow with the Printz v. United States example where Congress could not compel local law enforcement to conduct handgun background checks during the time it took to get the national program up and running.

Our Public Safety for All resolution does not prevent enforcement of immigration law by the federal government, nor does it prevent local law enforcement from sending or receiving known immigration status information when federal agents request it (as per 8 U.S.C. § 1373 of federal immigration law). It ensures maximum public safety of our county by outlining the separation of responsibilities and articulating the form of engagement between local and federal law enforcement.  In this manner, it maintains the rights of our local law enforcement within the context of federal law.

Tompkins County is home to more than 13,000 immigrants, who contribute daily to the financial, cultural, and spiritual fabric of our community. A majority of these immigrants are naturalized, hold a green card, or are documented on work or student visas.

A small percentage of residents are undocumented immigrants. The executive order mistakenly asserts that being undocumented is criminal. Approximately 45% of undocumented immigrants in the United States entered into the country on legitimate student and work visas so their entry was legal. Some are students brought to the country as minors and registered under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an American immigration policy established in 2012.

According to a press release by the ACLU, “While federal immigration law does criminalize some actions that may be related to undocumented presence in the United States, undocumented presence alone is not a violation of federal criminal law.”

It is the purview of the Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement office to investigate and identify for each case the subcategory of immigrants who are here illegally and have violated the law in a manner that is criminal.

This resolution is not designed to harbor criminals but rather to ensure that individuals will not be investigated or detained by local law enforcement solely and exclusively on their immigration status, which would hinder local law enforcement’s relationship of trust with the public at large and their ability to effectively do their job.

The executive order threatens to withhold federal funding, with the exception of necessary local law enforcement, for any municipality that impedes federal enforcement of immigration law. Although this resolution does not step outside the bounds of existing immigration law there are those still concerned about economic consequences.

There are important limitations outlined in constitutional law and by judicial ruling that experts believe apply to this executive order and constrain its impact.

All budgetary decisions are the exclusive purview of the legislative branch of government. Any funding decision would have to be reviewed by Congress and not dictated by the executive branch. According to Supreme Court rulings, withholding of funding to states or subsidiaries of states cannot be considered coercive under the Spending Clause (NFIB v. Sibelius), and must be related to general welfare and be stated unambiguously so that states can determine the impact of their participation (South Dakota v. Dole). Finally, any grant that is already in place cannot be revoked.  A grant is a contract and is held to the conditions as outlined in the grant when it was officially offered and accepted.

Tompkins would be far from the first county in New York to pass this type of resolution. The following is a list of counties with resolution language specifically protecting the unalienable rights of residents irrespective of immigration status: Bronx, Franklin, Kings, Nassau, Onondaga, Queens, Rensselaer, Richmond, Saratoga, St Lawrence, Suffolk, and Wayne.

This resolution is a necessary measure to ensure effective local public safety and to uphold the values of inclusion and equality upon which the United States was built.

The views expressed here as the author of this resolution are mine and not those of the legislature.

Featured photo by Alyvia Covert/The IthacaVoice