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More Symbol Than Substance, Council Passes Amended 'Safe Haven' Immigration Resolution

Jarret Callahan

West Lafayette is now a so-called “safe haven” for immigrants – even though that declaration is likely to mean very little where the law is concerned.

The West Lafayette City Council Monday evening approved the resolution before overflowing crowd at the Morton Center. It asserts no city department will investigate a person’s immigration status unless it’s party to a criminal investigation or required by law or court order.

The resolution was significantly amended by the city lawyer Eric Burns, who was tasked with bringing it into concert with a 2011 state law requiring local officers to assist federal agencies with immigration matters – essentially saying Indiana cannot host so-called “sanctuary cities.”

The resulting resolution, critics argue, doesn’t actually change anything city police do. Chief Jason Dombkowski insists the force doesn’t explicitly investigate immigration status in the first place—“We’re not kicking in doors,” he said during the meeting.

Council member Norris Wang, himself a child of immigrants, voted against passing the resolution in what he said was a difficult decision. He worries any movement from the council may be interpreted by federal officials as an attempt to become a sanctuary city.

I definitely feel it will be challenged no matter what,” he says, “and if It gets challenged that means we could see our federal funds being denied and future applications for funds being turned away.”

Mayor John Dennis estimates the city receives between $1 million and $2 million per year in federal funding, most of which assists the fire and police departments.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient Adi Ben-Yehoshua says she respects the council but hearing that kind of language as an immigrant hurt.

When you say we care more about the federal funding than you—the resident, the taxpayer, the community member, it makes you feel like a second class citizen,” she says. “And that’s really tough to say, because everybody—in the West Lafayette City Council, Mayor Dennis, the police people—it’s a really accepting community in total, and I respect all of them. But hearing that over and over again…it just hurt.”

As a resolution, the measure isn’t enforceable because it’s not an actual law. However, council members say such a gesture is important to send a message to the city’s immigrant community. Dombkowski was adamant the police force would follow the law no matter what. 

Israel native Ben-Yehoshua says the gesture is still meaningful to her.

“To have the local government here understand there are dangers that might come up is incredibly important to me,” she says.

Ben-Yehoshua says she feels safer knowing the city would, for example, oppose a registry for undocumented immigrants.

Approximately two dozen people spoke during public comment on the resolution, stretching the meeting to close to four hours. One speaker took issue with the resolution’s use of the word “machaseh,” a Hebrew word that roughly translated means “haven,” saying it sought to paint a sheen of religious sanctity on a political statement.

Other immigrants—some of whom declined to give their addresses for fear of harassment or deportation—say they had recently become afraid to leave their homes or send their children to school as a result of anti-immigration sentiment. 

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