ITHACA, N.Y. — Tompkins County is a step closer to becoming a sanctuary county after a resolution was passed unanimously b the Health and Human Services Committee on Friday. It now heads to Tompkins County Legislature on Tuesday.
The resolution is titled “Resolution to maintain a safe, inclusive government and protection, order, conduct, safety, health, and well-being of all persons in Tompkins County.” It does not actually contain the language “sanctuary county,” but offers the same protections as one. It’s important to note, however, that there is not a clear definition of what exactly a sanctuary county or jurisdiction is.
Legislator Anna Kelles, D-Ithaca, who spent about three months authoring the resolution, said she purposely did not use the language “sanctuary county” because it has created fear and is polarizing. Kelles said the point of the resolution is to support local law enforcement and provide public safety for everyone in the county.
“The intention is can we get away from trigger words that people hear and don’t necessarily have the full depth of understanding of what’s behind it. Can we get away from that experience and encourage people to really understand and read? But we’ve created something that codifies and establishes best practices that are in place so that we can start to educate and build relationships between those in the community that are trying to ensure public safety and the residents within the community. That’s its purpose,” Kelles said.
Is the county’s resolution legal?
Kelles said people have the misunderstanding that all levels of government should be implementing federal law enforcement policies.
The resolution outlines in detail that it is the federal government’s responsibility to enforce immigration laws, not local police. It also states that the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the federal government from commandeering state or local officials to enforce immigration law, and likewise prohibits state or local officials from acting unilaterally on immigration matters.
Further, under Home Rule powers, the county has authority to adopt local laws relating to the “government, protection, order, conduct, safety, health and well-being of persons” that are not inconsistent with the State Constitution or general state law.
Both the city and the county received guidance from New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who released a report guiding local municipalities on participation in immigration enforcement and provided model sanctuary provisions. Much of the language in the county’s resolution mirrors Schneiderman’s model provisions.
Shortly after taking office, President Donald Trump signed an executive order stating “sanctuary jurisdictions” are not eligible to receive federal grants, “except as deemed necessary for law enforcement purposes.” The executive order followed through on a campaign promise to cancel all funding to sanctuary cities.
In his executive order, signed Jan. 25, Trump said “sanctuary jurisdictions across the United States willfully violate Federal law in an attempt to shield aliens from removal from the United States. These jurisdictions have caused immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our Republic.”
However, what funding Trump does have the power to cut has been called into question.
Kelles said she has looked into what funding might be affected and noted several Supreme Court cases that limit the president’s power to defund. For example, she cited South Dakota v. Dole and NFIB v. Sebelius. Essentially, Congress cannot coerce local governments to act on the threat of withholding federal funds, and any funds that are withheld must be germane specifically to the federal interest in the grant itself.
Kelles said to expect more conversation on funding at Tompkins County Legislature on Tuesday.
Earlier this month, the City of Ithaca passed its own resolution to become a sanctuary city. Alderperson Cynthia Brock, 1st Ward, who drafted the city’s initial sanctuary city resolution, voiced her support Friday for the county’s resolution.
Brock said the resolution sends a clear message to residents that everyone will be protected and not judged on their immigration status. Representing the city’s 1st Ward, Brock said she has seen people who are afraid to contact the police.
“In the 1st Ward we have a large housing complex, and in this complex I have gotten the chance to see firsthand what happens when you have a community who is afraid, a community who’s afraid to speak to police officers, afraid to speak with their neighbors,” Brock said. “When incidents happen, it’s very, very difficult to be able to understand what is going on, who is involved and to get information from eye witnesses. We have a community who is afraid right now.”
How does this affect the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office?
The draft resolution coming before Tompkins County Legislature will not impact local deputies enforcing the law.
On Feb. 2, the day after the city passed its sanctuary city resolution, Tompkins County Sheriff Ken Lansing issued an open letter saying he and his deputies will not ask for someone’s immigration status unless it is directly relevant to an investigation.
In the public latter, Lansing wrote, “We do not have the constitutional authority, intention, nor the personnel to enforce federal laws; including the federal immigration law – which clearly falls under the responsibility of the federal government.”
Related: Talk of Sanctuary County prompts Tompkins Sheriff statement: deputies won’t ask for immigration status
“We do not have the constitutional authority, intention, nor the personnel to enforce federal laws; including the federal immigration law – which clearly falls under the responsibility of the federal government,” Lansing wrote.
In the letter, Lansing said he appreciates that legislators have met with him and his staff while drafting the resolution “that is both responsive to the views of their constituents, protects the inalienable rights of our residents, acknowledges the practices that the Sheriff’s Office already has in place, and does not put the Sheriff’s Office in a quandary that would prevent my deputies from being able to conduct themselves in a manner that adheres to New York State law.”
Undersheriff Brian Robison said the proposed resolution does not impact deputies doing their job. Robison said deputies are not federal agents and do not enforce federal law.
“Our only concern was please don’t put us in a position where we’re going to be asked to violate some law ourselves. That would be not good. And this does not do that,” Robison said.
Does the resolution go too far? Does it go far enough?
At the committee meeting Friday, Legislator Will Burbank, D-Ithaca, said his initial impression of resolution was not quite what he was looking for.
“I would like a simple, symbolic ‘We are a sanctuary city’ kind of feel, but that’s the way I feel emotionally,” Burbank said. “I feel that the changes that are happening at the national level are brutally repressive, grossly unfair and I would hope that communities all over America would stand up and say ‘We refuse to go along.’ That however is not what this resolution is.”
However, Burbank said he appreciates that the resolution, by their best understanding, complies with the Constitution, federal law and provides protection to people who are especially vulnerable.
Legislator Mike Sigler, R-Lansing, said in a post on Facebook that though he strongly supports immigration and taking in refugees, he does not support the resolution to become a sanctuary county.
“Millions of undocumented immigrants live and work in the United States. Regardless of the question about deportation, they are still living here illegally and sanctuary laws that chip away at the value of citizenship, a US visa, or Green card, will not solve that problem,” Sigler wrote.
Legislator Carol Chock, D-Ithaca, asked if the resolutions goes far enough. In response, Kelles said they are at the edge of where they can go legally. Going any further would force the sheriff’s deputies outside legal requirements, she said.
Tompkins County Legislature meets at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 21.
Read the full draft resolution below. Please note that this draft was released prior to the meeting, so some small amendments have been added since.
Featured image by Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice