This is the second in a series of posts about What The Hell Happened Last Night. Like the previous installment, it is heavily biased reportage.
When we last saw the City Council, they had wrapped up their attempt to deflect attention away from the burgeoning neighborhood council movement by approving a ballot measure to expand the School Committee.
Indeed, the city had not heard such Kumbaya-singing since the last time the City Manager had a performance review.
But there was trouble in paradise. Trouble with a capital K.
Councilor Konnie Lukes had proposed that the “City Manager report on what resources, funds and training are required in order to send the fingerprints of a person arrested and held in custody by the Worcester Police Department to homeland security and federal immigration agencies.”
As she mentioned a few times in her remarks, this was inspired by the death of Matthew Denice, who was allegedly killed by an alleged illegal immigrant/drunk driver. (The ‘allegeds’ are not there to make a point so much as to keep me from being sued.)
At first, the City Manager responded to Councilor Lukes’ questions, but Chief Gemme came to the podium early on to provide more detailed answers.
Jeremy has the play-by-play, and it doesn’t need to be rehashed. You are more than welcome to watch what I imagine is an uncomfortable video (it was certainly uncomfortable watching it from the gallery) or read Nick K’s account of this part of the meeting.
I’d like to address two things: the content of what was discussed and the general tone.
If the previous item was, in Lukes’ words, little more than an “election-year headline”, this, too, was meant more for soundbites than for action.
What Councilor Lukes was essentially asking was whether we could opt in to the Secure Communities program.
First, a brief explanation of Secure Communities is in order. Here’s a brief explanation of how it works in a municipality (Boston) from WBUR’s Bianca Vázquez Toness:
When Boston police officers arrest someone, they enter their fingerprints into a database of FBI, Homeland Security and immigration information. If the person has had any interaction with immigration officials — if they overstayed a visa, if they applied for asylum, if they have a green card — it will ping officials. If ICE wants that person, they’ll call Boston police to put a hold on them.
ICE categorizes these immigrants — some of whom are here legally — by the severity of the charges against them. The program is supposed to target the worst offenders — “Level 1s” — people charged with murder, kidnapping, national security crimes. But Martin says ICE officials also deport people accused of lesser crimes that are picked up by Boston police officers.
Secure Communities (S-Comm) is, as you can imagine, somewhat controversial, but if you’ve read a newspaper or listened to the radio over the past six months, you don’t need me to tell you that.
Now, to Lukes’ question about whether we could opt in to S-Comm, the answer was somewhere in between “no” and “we already do it.”
The “we already do it” part is this: the city submits fingerprints to the state, which submits them to the FBI, which submits them to ICE, which checks them against its databases. “If these checks reveal that an individual is unlawfully present in the United States or otherwise removable due to a criminal conviction“, then (according to Chief Gemme) ICE might ask that the WPD hold “certain individuals with retainer warrants.” Gemme noted that they could hold these individuals for up to 48 hours for the feds.
The “no” part is that, according to Gemme, there is currently no way for us to directly interface with ICE.
Also, there’s no need, as we already provide fingerprints to the FBI and the two federal agencies share data with one another.
“Just about everybody shares our fingerprints with the FBI,” said Wayne Sampson, executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association. “Everybody does in one sense or the other, but practically every single department does on a daily basis. For most of us, it’s sent in automatically.”
From much of my reading, it’s unclear where the push is coming from regarding participation in Secure Communities. If we already provide fingerprints to the FBI, and various parts of the federal government are cooperating with each other, then the biggest part of this (and this is where, I believe, the year 2013 comes into play) is making sure ICE communicates back to a municipality (or jail, or prison, or whomever) when it needs someone held and better linking of the various fingerprint databases.
For the purposes of brevity, I’m leaving out a whole slew of racial profiling and civil liberties issues. It’s not that they aren’t important to me, but that’s not really at issue here.
What is at issue is that we spent nearly 45 minutes of time debating something that got referred to the law department and will get another 45 minutes of debate when the law department comes back with a response that will likely say that we can’t opt in.
Nothing was clarified. Most of us came out of that even more confused about S-Comm than when we went in.
And — if I may grandstand for a moment — part of the reason for that was the general tone of the conversation.
The General Tone
Lukes went into this conversation in a rather adversarial way, and it did not seem that the Mayor was inclined to cut her any slack after her indicting quotes from his inaugural speech a few minutes before.
She asked the Chief two or three times if the city could voluntarily submit fingerprints to ICE. When he responded in the negative, she asked the question in a slightly different way. The third time, the Mayor stopped her. (Perhaps it’s just because My Cousin Vinny is on every time I turn on the TV, but I half-expected him to tell her she was badgering the witness.)
At that point, the Mayor had nearly lost his temper. This is a man who will smile sweetly at you when you disagree with him, but he’d had enough of Konnie.
And that’s when she let loose the S word.
She asked Gemme if Worcester was a sanctuary city.
The Mayor told her, “That’s a pretty vague question”, so she defined a sanctuary city for Gemme.
(For the record, Bill Coleman told me there are three sanctuary cities in Massachusetts: Orleans, Cambridge, and Chelsea.)
Gemme said that they were not deputized by the federal government, so “we don’t have the authority under the law to detain
illegal undocumented immigrants.”
Yes, folks, Konnie Lukes actually did the impossible: she made Chief Gemme seem progressive. He immediately corrected his “illegal” with “undocumented.”
There were various motions flying (Konnie sending this to legal, Bill Eddy to file; Bill Eddy not filing because Konnie was sending it to legal).
In between the motions and the Mayor’s bad mood, something important got lost in the shuffle: Ron Madnick’s voice.
Madnick had wanted to speak on this item, and the Mayor told him he couldn’t because he had spoken on it last week.
But Madnick hadn’t, and while the Mayor realized his error half an hour later, the damage was already done.
It is, of course, upsetting that Madnick was not able to speak out in favor of civil liberties, but it is even more upsetting that there are so many items up before the City Council that challenge our civil liberties that the Mayor couldn’t even remember which one Ron had spoken on.
This was the most frustrating City Council meeting I’d attended in a while, and it wasn’t even half over yet.
It was frustrating not only because Konnie Lukes actually made me feel for Chief Gemme (never a good moment in any young woman’s life), but because the meeting (as a whole, not just this part) reminded me that we have truly lost any concept of what a public hearing is.
The emphasis should be on hearing.
Konnie went into this meeting with her own personal ax to grind.
Other councilors went into the first part of the meeting with their minds made up.
Konnie really didn’t want to hear what Chief Gemme’s expert opinion was, and she really wasn’t looking for answers. She just wanted to get the words “sanctuary city” and “Milford” in print somewhere to appeal to a certain voter base.
She didn’t care that what she was talking about made no sense, or that someone who’s an illegal immigrant might not have fingerprints in any database, or that some of us are more worried about crime in general than the passport (or lack thereof) of those who commit the crimes.
As I said before, the worst part was that Ron Madnick was silenced. And for that I blame both the Mayor and Councilor Lukes.
I also blame all of us for allowing our elected officials to care more about speechmaking and having pre-made opinions rather than true listening and decision-making. Shame on all of us for allowing things to get to this point.