Hyattsville seeks to educate residents on sanctuary city status

By Danielle Kiefer

After Hyattsville, Maryland, officially declared itself the state’s second sanctuary city April 17, the next step for councilmembers will be to educate residents on exactly what it does and what it does not mean to be a sanctuary city.

“Whenever I get a chance, I will remind people and educate people on what it means that we are a sanctuary city,” Hyattsville City Council president Edouard Haba said. “It doesn’t mean that we will, in any way or form, prevent the federal government from coming to Hyattsville. If they decide to come conduct immigration enforcement action in Hyattsville, we can’t fight them on that.”

Councilmember Kevin Ward attributes some of residents’ opposition to becoming a sanctuary city to misconceptions and a lack of knowledge about what sanctuary cities actually are.

“There’s a gap in the public’s understanding of what it means to be a sanctuary city,” Ward said.

He hopes to clarify any misunderstandings regarding what Hyattsville can and cannot do as a sanctuary city.

“This does not extend an extra right,” Ward said. “You can’t be here, be a criminal, and not get deported. You will get deported if you are a criminal, but you won’t be deported based strictly on your citizenship status, because we will not be asking for that.”

Essentially, most residents should not notice any change in the way that the city operates, because Hyattsville police officers already choose not to ask about residents’ immigration status, councilmember Patrick Paschall said.

“The reality is that most residents don’t know that that’s already a longstanding practice that we have,” Paschall said. “The point of the sanctuary city legislation is to codify what is already a longstanding practice, and hopefully build some community trust in our police department.”

Residents like Ben Simiasak were in favor of the decision to become a sanctuary city. Simiasak, whose wife is an immigrant, supported the sanctuary city ordinance because he wants residents to be able to trust the police.

“I think it’s very important that cities, communities [and] states stand up and raise their voice to protect all of the residents in defiance of the new administration,” Simiasak said. “Immigrants make this country stronger.”

Resident Leigh Barlow, however, opposed becoming a sanctuary city. Barlow stressed that she does not “have a problem with immigrants,” as Hyattsville is a “multicultural environment.” In 2015, approximately 34 percent of Hyattsville’s population was either not a U.S. citizen or not born in the U.S., according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“I don’t want anybody to get taken away, but what I would do is help them become citizens,” Barlow said. “I have a lot of friends that came in and got their citizenship, and this is a slap in the face to them.”

One of the concerns that Barlow and others have is the possibility of losing federal funding. President Trump’s Jan. 25 executive order threatened to withhold federal grants from sanctuary cities and local governments that do not comply with federal immigration activities.

“There’s really no telling how much money we could lose,” councilmember Paula Perry said.

In the past, federal grant money has been used to update the police communications systems and offset the cost of emergency services such as storm cleanup. Over the past five years, the federal government funded an average of $22,000 per year, which makes up about 0.1 percent of the city’s yearly budget, according to Pascall.

“The amount of dollars at stake here is just not significant,” Pascall said.

A federal judge in San Francisco temporarily halted President Trump’s executive order April 25, causing further confusion on whether Hyattsville will actually lose federal grant money.

“It’s not clear that the executive order that threatens the federal funding for sanctuary cities is constitutional,” Pascall said. “There’s a larger question over whether or not any finding is at risk.”

Featured image from Elvert Xavier Barnes Photography, Hyattsville Arts District Project, via Flickr.


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