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Revere Sees A Divide Over 'Sanctuary' Proposals05:42
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Protesters on May 1 hold signs outside Revere City Hall to express solidarity with the city's immigrants. (Simón Rios/WBUR)
Protesters on May 1 hold signs outside Revere City Hall to express solidarity with the city's immigrants. (Simón Rios/WBUR)
This article is more than 2 years old.

In early April, Revere Councilor-at-Large George Rotondo put forward a motion to say no to the proposal calling for Massachusetts to become a so-called "sanctuary state."

Rotondo is a Democrat but voted for President Trump, and he says he takes to heart the president's threat to cut funding to cities that don't cooperate with immigration enforcement.

"Put up a wall, have more ICE agents, and everybody that's here that's not a criminal, they should get a visa and stay here," he told the council.

"But turning this state into a sanctuary state? No thank you."

Debate Over Federal Funding

Then, on May 1, two dozen protesters gathered in front of Revere City Hall before another council meeting. They formed a circle to introduce themselves and explain why they came. Councilor Rotondo joined without a flinch.

"I wrote that motion to ask not to vote for sanctuary state," Rotondo told them, "because I don't want people to lose funding at the federal level, for health care, education or public safety."

The crowd listened to Rotondo as they had listened to each person attending the rally. Then, organizer Dimple Rana, of the Revere Immigrant Solidarity Network, interrupted. She and her fellow protesters say Rotondo's concerns about federal funding being in jeopardy are baseless.

Rana says protesters came out because immigrants should be present in a conversation about immigrants.

"Who on the city council is representing the immigrant community?" Rana told WBUR. "I don't know. This needs to be presented to the community versus having blanket statements saying you're not welcome here — the feeling of not being welcome here."

Revere City Councilor-at-Large George Rotondo (Simón Rios/WBUR)
Revere City Councilor-at-Large George Rotondo (Simón Rios/WBUR)

The so-called Safe Communities Act is the "sanctuary state" bill and would restrain cooperation between law enforcement in Massachusetts and federal immigration authorities.

Specifically, it would prohibit agencies from using resources for immigration enforcement, prevent them from sharing records for the purpose of a religious or racial database, and ban police from asking about a person's immigration status unless required by law.

The definition of a "sanctuary city" is amorphous, but a number of cities have provisions in place to regulate cooperation between local cops and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They tend to be places like Newton, Boston, Cambridge and Somerville, or more blue-collar cities with large immigrant populations, including Chelsea, where 45 percent of the population is foreign-born, and Lawrence, where 37 percent of residents are immigrants.

In both Lawrence and Chelsea, Latinos enjoy majorities on the city councils, which is perhaps what distinguishes Revere.

Revere's immigrant population has swelled to nearly twice what it was in 2000 — from about 10,000 to 19,000, according to the U.S. Census. Nowadays Revere has about 14,000 Latinos, but not one of them sits on the city council.

"We are a proud community, but we are not the wealthiest community in the world," said Rotondo, who works as a nurse at a hospital in Boston. "And I'm not going to risk my people's livelihood ... because someone wants to make a statement. You want to make a statement? Go down to Revere Beach, stand up on the wall and make a statement."

"We are a proud community, but we are not the wealthiest community in the world. And I'm not going to risk my people's livelihood ... because someone wants to make a statement."

Revere Councilor George Rotondo

But supporters of the sanctuary movement point to a recent ruling by a federal court in San Francisco, saying the president cannot withhold funding from sanctuary cities.

Among more than 50 cosponsors of the sanctuary state bill is Sen. Joseph Boncore, a Democrat. He represents not just Revere and his hometown of Winthrop, but also the sanctuary cities of Cambridge and Boston.

"I don't think we should be bullied or threatened by Trump, capitulate [to] these false rumors based on his threats," Boncore said. "Because Congress under our Constitution is the only [entity] vested with authority to spend money and allocate resources."

He added: "We shouldn't be allocating state dollars for federal immigration enforcement."

How Fears About Crime Shape The Divide

Other opponents of sanctuary provisions say they would make Massachusetts a safe harbor for criminals. Councilor Anthony Zambuto says Revere will only become a sanctuary city over his "dead body."

"Let me tell you something," Zambuto said before the May 1 council meeting. "I have nothing against someone who might've come here illegally and is doing the right thing. I'll protect them in any way I can. It's the gang bangers and the criminals that I want to stop. I don't want to hear the story about your breaking up families. These MS-13 kids are cutting people up."

But defenders of the sanctuary state proposal say it would not give immunity to anyone. Police could still go after gang members or anyone else suspected of a crime, advocates say, they just wouldn't be able to enforce the immigration laws that fall to the federal government.

Groups including the Major Cities Chiefs, a professional association for police that represents the largest cities in the U.S. and Canada, say immigration enforcement by local police can erode trust and ultimately lead to more crime.

Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, brought the sanctuary bill to the Legislature after it languished in previous sessions. Now pending before the Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security, Eldridge says the bill is an answer to a patchwork of rules on immigration enforcement in each city and town.

"We all drive through multiple towns and cities to get to work, to see friends, to do our errands, and you could have some police officers who are cooperating with ICE agents leading to many hard-working family members being deported," Eldridge said.

Eldridge also rejects the class argument invoked by some of the councilors in Revere, who portray themselves as "lunch pail Democrats" and Eldridge as an out-of-touch liberal from the suburbs.

"I would argue that a significant number, perhaps a majority of immigrants, in Massachusetts — especially, quite honestly, those who are Latino — are working class," he added. "They're doing service jobs; they're often entrepreneurs; they're revitalizing cities like Revere and Everett and Chelsea."

And Eldridge wants Massachusetts to be welcoming for them.

This segment aired on May 9, 2017.

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Simón Rios Twitter Reporter
Simón Ríos is an award-winning bilingual reporter in WBUR's newsroom.

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