On Tuesday, Jan. 10 the Kingston Common Council will meet to vote on Mayor Steve Noble’s resolution to reaffirm “Kingston as a welcoming and inclusive city.” As I write this, only a slight majority — 51 percent of respondents to Hudson Valley One’s online poll — appear to stand in favor of this humane and commonsense measure.
Why? Opposition may stem from a misunderstanding of what “sanctuary city” means. A “sanctuary city” limits the role of local police in enforcing federal immigration law, exercising its right not to expend local resources to aid federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) authorities. In a sanctuary or welcoming city, the municipality recognizes that all people deserve the same basic protections under the law, regardless of perceived immigration status. A welcoming city’s police department does not inquire about anyone’s immigration status as a matter of course.
Kingston City Police Chief Edigio Tinti is on record as saying that the proposed resolution will not change his department’s practices. I applaud the Kingston police for affirming their commitment to serve all Kingstonians. When citizens trust that their police and other first responders will not inquire unnecessarily into immigration status, people of all statuses can freely seek help and report crimes. Imagine the situation of an undocumented person who is mugged or raped. In some cities, that person might hesitate to report the crime and get needed medical and legal help out of fear of deportation — and the perpetrator of the crime might remain at large to harm others. Here in Kingston, the victim knows that local authorities are here to help. In this way, sanctuary policies may actually enhance law enforcement’s ability to investigate crimes effectively, in no way inhibiting police from pursuing individuals who in fact represent a threat to the community’s safety.
Some who oppose the “welcoming and inclusive city” measure say that they don’t want Kingston to start attracting undocumented immigrants. They should rest assured that “sanctuary” is not synonymous with “magnet” and doesn’t imply “free handouts.” Since the resolution isn’t an offer of legal status, a secure job, or higher wages, it seems unlikely to attract undocumented people. It would, however, reaffirm our commitment to the safety of all of our residents regardless of their immigration status. It would also confer another important advantage: access to due process of law. Although the Constitution guarantees that if a person is arrested, her case will be handled according to due process, immigrants are one of the groups whose cases are most likely to be mishandled, whether because of a language barrier or because of bias within the legal system. Extending this fundamental human right to all Kingston’s people helps ensure everyone’s right to fair treatment in a court of law.
Although there will always be some who imagine that they get to decide when to shut America’s doors, that’s not the welcoming spirit of the country I believe in. If you, like me, are a U.S.-born citizen, there’s a fair chance you descend from immigrants who came to this country to escape persecution and/or make a better life (and likely faced some form of discrimination). The notion that earlier generations did it the “right way” while new immigrants are “lawbreakers” by the mere fact of their entry into the United States is misinformed and misleading. Our current immigration system simply does not afford the same opportunities for “legal” migration as in the past.
This kind of thinking may explain why I’ve heard some neighbors oppose the “welcoming and inclusive city” resolution with an argument along these lines: If Kingston treats all of its immigrants without regard to their legal status, there won’t be enough services left for other people; if we treat immigrants fairly, they’ll come to steal jobs from hardworking people whose families have been here longer. But that’s zero-sum thinking, the idea that giving something to one person necessarily means taking it away from others. Though there are legitimate zero-sum situations in this world — if two families want to buy a game console and only one is left in the store, one family goes home happy and the other disappointed — human rights and civil liberties do not fall into this category. A society that grants rights and privileges to some but not all is unjust; and an unjust society is unsafe for all its members. Furthermore, here in Kingston, many immigrants have begun successful businesses and are helping our city become more economically robust. Research does show that increased immigration to cities leads to economic growth. Making Kingston more welcoming and inclusive to immigrants could, contrary to the zero-sum arguments, mean more jobs for local residents.
Immigrants, documented or otherwise, can live precarious lives. They are disproportionately likely to live below the poverty line, suffer from food and housing insecurity, and have their labor exploited. The undocumented also pay taxes — income, sales, and property — without qualifying for federal assistance programs. It’s our moral obligation to protect the most vulnerable of our neighbors. This ensures a peaceful, welcoming community for people of all socioeconomic statuses, orientations, races, and religions. In this way, rights and civil liberties function more like love than like game consoles. They are not limited in amount or number, but grow stronger the more we experience and share them.
That’s the kind of city I want to live in, and it’s the kind of city I do live in — a city in which people from widely diverse backgrounds treat one another with respect. My older son is a third grader at George Washington Elementary, where his class is diverse along almost every axis you can think of (race, national origin, socioeconomic status, religion, family structure, etc.). I believe this will help him to grow up to be the kind of person who understands that human rights are all humans’ rights — and that he has a duty to defend them.
This is really why I support Mayor Noble’s proposal to ensure that Kingston remains a “welcoming and inclusive” city, and why I encourage my fellow Kingstonians, and especially the members of the Common Council, to do so too: Because even an eight-year-old knows that all people deserve the same respect and safety. If the Common Council votes in favor of the resolution next week, this will do nothing at present to change our municipal law. It will recognize that Kingston is a diverse community, where people of all backgrounds can come to raise a family, start a business, and live a good life, and it will influence our lawmakers to consider all Kingstonians’ best interests when enacting future legislation.
Emily Barton is the author, most recently, of the novel The Book of Esther, a regular contributor to The New York Times Book Review, among other publications and a resident of Kingston’s Third Ward. Follow her on Twitter @embleybarton.