Rebuking the Trump Administration’s increase in immigration enforcement, the South Kingstown Town Council passed last night what it calls the Immigrant Protection Ordinance. The new law, approved on a 3 to 2 vote, prevents local police officers from enforcing federal immigration rules, unless so ordered by a federal judge.
“My family,” Council Vice President Abel Collins said prior to voting in favor, “came here because they were chased out of England for religious persecution over 300 years ago. People are being chased out of their own country now for the same reason. America should be the place that welcomes them and South Kingstown came make that stand.”
Council President Margaret Healy and Councilor Joe Veile voted against the bill, saying they preferred a resolution instead. “We are all here for the same reason,” Healy said. “We want our town to be safe.”
But Councilor Liz Gledhill, a proponent of the ordinance, said changing the law is vastly different than a resolution.
“There’s a difference between talking about something and giving something some teeth,” Gledhill said. “I certainly didn’t think a year ago I would be worrying about any of this. These are unprecedented times … when I look back at this time in our history I want to know I did what was best was for the people of our community and something that I could be proud of and my kids could be proud of.”
Councilor Bryant Da Cruz was the swing vote. When he announced his support, the packed Council Chambers erupted into applause.
You can watch video of the meeting here.
South Kingstown, a leafy, increasingly suburban, coastal college town, isn’t fertile ground for immigration enforcement. Several community members, including Chief of Police Joe Geaber, said this was reason enough not to enact a new law.
“Usually a town ordinance is adopted to deal with existing problems such as noise, parking, animal control,” said Geaber. “I’m not aware of a town ordinance being passed to deal with federal immigration issues, especially in South Kingstown where the problem does not exist.” Like the two councilors who voted in the minority, Geaber said a resolution was sufficient.
The change in law was supported strongly by the University of Rhode Island community, including a letter from President David Dooley supporting the process.
“Some of the people here have spoken about not seeing discrimination in this town,” said a URI employee and member of the South Kingstown Immigration Task Force, which first proposed the draft ordinance. “I’m to tell you we saw it first hand at the university, which is the reason why we brought it to you. We saw people living in fear, we saw families divided, we saw a pregnant woman separated from her husband because he couldn’t get back into the country.”
Former South Kingstown state Rep. Mike Rice said the new law is important to URI’s ability to entice overseas talent to the Ocean State.
“One of largest members of the community, the University of Rhode Island, is attempting to build rather than shrink its international connections,” Rice said, noting international students have “a rather massive economic impact on us.”
Rice does work in Indonesia, and said “the national government is interested in sending many people here to South Kingstown because they feel safe here. They listen to the news over in Indonesia and basically we need to show them a sign.”
Many longtime South Kingstown residents spoke of the need to help the most vulnerable people, for South Kingstown to remain a welcoming place, and to resist the Trump Administration.
“The [Trump] Administraiton has made clear it expects local police departments like ours to help find and detain suspected immigration violators,” said Tim Murphy. “But immigration enforcement has always been a federal responsibility, not a local one.”
South Kingstown is the first municipality to pass such a law, said Steven Brown, of the Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Association. South Kingstown’s law is based on a draft bill from the ACLU that has been adopted in some hundreds of jurisdictions across the country. “Providence’s new Community Safety Act has a few immigrant protection provisions,” according to Brown, “and a few communities like Bristol have adopted very positive but non-binding resolutions in support of immigrant rights.”