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Mayor says ‘si’ to order protecting immigrants

NORTHAMPTON — Shortly after three city immigrants shared tales of interactions with police that shook their trust in the community, Mayor David J. Narkewicz promised Thursday at a public forum to sign an executive order prohibiting the Police Department from turning over illegal immigrants to the federal U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency for non-criminal incidents.

When twice pressed by organizers of a community forum sponsored by the Northampton Trust Coalition to sign such an order posthaste, Narkewicz offered a simple response — “si.”

That led to an eruption of cheers from about 50 people gathered at the First Churches of Northampton to share stories and plead with Narkewicz to codify the Police Department’s three-year-old practice not to participate in a controversial federal immigration program known as Secure Communities.

Narkewicz and Police Chief Russell P. Sienkiewicz said police have not participated in the ICE program since the City Council passed a resolution in 2011 condemning the federal initiative. They vowed that Northampton is committed to continuing that practice by making the non-binding measure official city policy.

“My commitment as mayor is to make sure that every family, every resident, every child feels safe in Northampton,” Narkewicz said. “Our Police Department is here to protect the residents of Northampton and they work very hard to do that and I do not want to have a city where people live in fear of any city official, from the mayor to the Police Department.”

He said he feels for the concerns and fears that people live with, and blamed a broken federal immigration system whose problems must be dealt with at the local level.

The mayor initially stopped short of saying he would issue an executive order in an effort not to preempt the City Council, which has been working on a resolution for some time. But he also said he was committed to issuing an administrative order to address some of the issues raised at the meeting. That led organizers to press harder, urging him to use his powers as the city’s chief executive to act quickly.

“We’re looking for a path to have codified law on this issue and we would like you to take the first step,” said Bliss Requa-Trautz, an organizer for the forum sponsor Just Communities. “And so we ask the question again. Would you be willing to sign an executive order based on the proposal we have given you?”

“I am prepared to do that,” Narkewicz said.

Sienkiewicz acknowledged the fears expressed by those who attended the forum and shared their personal stories, calling the testimonials “touching.”

Among those were Luis Alavarez, a 10-year resident of Northampton and father of two who recalled an incident three years ago in which he borrowed his brother’s car to go to work and was pulled over by police for a burned-out license plate light. Alavarez told officers he did not have legal documents to be in the country and therefore could not get a license. He said they arrested him, searched his car and refused to provide an interpreter when he asked.

“At that moment I kept thinking about what would happen to my daughters if I was deported,” Alavarez said through an interpreter. “I know I’m running a risk today by giving this testimony ... we want to shed light on how it is that we live.”

Rosa Chimborazo, through tearful testimony, recalled the events of Aug. 7, 2011, when her husband was detained by Northampton police for driving without a license. The arrest led to his deportation and heartache for the family of five, a feeling that she equated to a “street with no exit.”

“I ask that you help us be safe so that police will not turn our people in,” Chimborazo said. “I would not want this to happen to other families.”

Finally, a third Northampton resident, Luz Buri, told a story of mistakenly running a red light and being confronted by two police officers. The first officer, she said, advised her to clear her frosted windshield before driving but took no other action. The second officer asked for her license and registration. When she told him she did not have a license, she said the officer threatened to call immigration “at any moment.”

“Ever since that day I have a great fear that I have spoken to my husband about a lot,” Buri said.

Sienkiewicz assured the audience that his department takes all complaints seriously. After hearing Chimborazo and Buri recount their experiences at an earlier meeting, the chief said his department investigated both cases for potential misconduct by officers. He said the Chimborazo case occurred just a few days before the City Council passed its 2011 resolution.

“I wish that ordinance would have been in place before that — I’m sorry for that,” the chief said.

The Buri incident did not involve officers from his department, Sienkiewicz said. He also intends to look into the case of Alavarez.

“I want to reassure all of you that there shouldn’t be any fear,” Sienkiewicz said.

Narkewicz said he intends to sign the executive order as soon as next week. That will add Northampton to a list of some 140 communities nationwide that have taken similar measures, Requa-Trautz said. The city is also among the first communities in the state to take such a stand, joining Boston and Somerville.

Additionally, states are also passing similar measures, though a Massachusetts bill known as the Trust Act stalled during the last legislative session.

Northampton’s order builds on the 2011 resolution and provides three main safeguards for immigrants in non-criminal matters.

Most importantly, Northampton agrees not to comply with federal law allowing ICE to ask state and local police to hold immigrants so that deportation officers can pick them up.

Another key provision in the executive order protects immigrants from an extra penalty for driving without a license and gives them time to call a licensed driver to pick them up before their vehicle is towed. And a final measure guarantees immigrants the right to converse with police officers and dispatchers in whatever language they are most comfortable speaking .

Narkewicz and Sienkiewicz said these are all measures the Police Department currently follows, something that Requa-Trautz agreed with.

“This order builds on the sentiment of the (2011) resolution and codifies it legally because the resolution is not binding,” she said after the forum. “So we’re seeking a greater form of security for Northampton.”

The Northampton Trust Coalition is headed by Iglesia Quechua Bautista Nueva Vida and includes the Peace and Justice Committee of First Churches, and Just Communities.

In addition to immigrants, many members of the latter organizations attended Thursday’s forum including Dr. Marty Nathan, who sees many immigrant patients in her Springfield office. She said the testimonies at the forum are common for many of her patients, including victims of crimes who are afraid to report them for fear of being deported.

“I hear the pain, the sorry,” she said. “I see the results of this broken immigration system.”

Nathan was the first to press the mayor to act swiftly Thursday night. “We can lead,” she said. “We have led. It’s because we have the capacity to care. Sign this executive order to begin to end the suffering of the immigrants of the city of Northampton.”

Narkewicz said after the forum that he believes the order will help build trust.

“I think the name trust for this act and this movement is apt because really it’s about building trust in the community ... we want them to feel like they can come forward and not be concerned that we are going to be looking at their immigration status,” Narkewicz said.

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