Robbinsdale City Council inches closer to finalizing ‘welcoming city’ proclamation

Proposal seeks to enhance integration and support for refugee and immigrant residents

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The Robbinsdale City Council and Police Chief Jim Franzen met with members of the city’s Human Rights Commission Aug. 29 for a work session to discuss an ongoing proposal for the city to declare itself a welcoming city to refugees and immigrants. The declaration would come from passing a proclamation declaring that Robbinsdale police will not participate in any 287(g) immigration programs, which deputizes state and local law enforcement to participate directly in federal immigration enforcement.

The commission’s proposal was first presented to the council in late May and has been part of an ongoing discussion to shape it into its final form.

Councilmember Bill Blonigan assisted by making suggested edits to the original wording. The proposal was originally presented as a resolution. It has since been suggested by city officials that the matter be presented as a proclamation.

City Manager Marcia Glick pointed out the importance of distinguishing between the two.

“That’s why when we first had talked about this in a work session, we talked about changing it to a proclamation that proclaims what we do, rather than resolving that we must do something that we’re doing anyway—that’s the difference between a resolution and a proclamation,” Glick said.

Members of the commission made the case at previous council meetings that they would prefer something with stronger language that leaves no questions open about intentions of the police department, including a lengthy discussion at an Aug. 8 meeting.

“We feel that working to make Robbinsdale a welcoming city, we have to take a proactive approach, rather than waiting for something wrong to happen and taking a reactive approach,” said Sherief Elababady, a commission member. “We feel that our proposal helps prevent racial profiling.”

The commission’s proposal is part of an effort being led by the organization Welcoming America, which seeks to help cities across the U.S. strengthen their support for refugees and immigrants and ensure their full integration into the community. The proclamation to define Robbinsdale as a welcoming city would be similar to those municipalities defined as sanctuary cities.

Portions of the proposal for Robbinsdale include declaring that the City of Robbinsdale will not participate in unconstitutional or illegal registration or surveillance programs that target people of any “faith, creed, religious order, or national origin faith,” and that the city will commit to building a community that is “welcoming, safe, and hate-free … where all immigrants and refugees are welcomed, accepted, and integrated.”

City leaders have indicated support, but emphasized that Robbinsdale does not currently participate in the 287(g) program. Only around 30 departments across the country participate in it, none of which are in Minnesota, according to Franzen.

“Everything in that resolution, we already do … We have no reason to participate in [the 287(g) program], and I don’t foresee any reason to participate in that,” Franzen stated, noting that the only concern he had with the proposal in its current state is that it potentially places the council in a position of directing the police department through a single resolution.

“(The proposed resolution) says ‘The council encourages the police department to continue its focus on safety and security for all of our residents regardless of immigration status,’ which I fully agree with,” he added.

Councilmember George Selman said he would not personally support the implementation of a 287(g) program in Robbinsdale unless under very specific, unpredictable circumstances in the future, and that he would want to keep a very small window open for the possibility even though it seems unlikely. He agreed with Franzen’s concerns about the proposal in the form of a resolution rather than a proclamation, since Robbinsdale does not actually already participate in the program.

Glick also pointed out that the council would need to weigh in on any hypothetical request for a 287(g) program to be implemented, as well as have a public hearing on the matter, meaning that the program is not something that the police department would abruptly adopt.

Discussion ensued about whether it was necessary to pass a resolution regarding an issue the city has no intentions of actually doing. Members of the commission helped clarify the intent behind passing such a measure.

“It’s about stating something specific,” explained commission member Julie Ralston Aoki. “I think the thing about the proclamation as it was, is it was a nice positive statement, it’s very symbolic, but I feel like we’re in a time when people need a little more than just symbolism or lip service to things, so having something that tries to get at a more concrete, specific commitment is helpful.”

Aoki pointed to some documentation that provides samples of the language used by various jurisdictions around the country.

“One example has to do with this city stating that they will not use city funds or resources to assist in enforcement of federal immigration law,” she said.

Commission member Rita Fox elaborated on the meaning behind the resolution.

“How I would put it into terms is, rather than a 60-year-old woman, I’m a 22-year-old, and I’ve been in this country since I was 3—I have legal backup papers. All of a sudden, I don’t know where I stand with the federal government, but I want to know where I stand with the city of Robbinsdale, and everything I’ve heard from everyone in Robbinsdale is we are welcoming and affirming, and we are not going to pursue immigration. Then, I think we have an opportunity here not to have this a ‘best kept secret,” she said. “We’ve got great garbage pickup, as far as I’m concerned, it’s not a secret. We let our residents know how garbage works; we need to let them know how immigration works in Robbinsdale, too.”

At a previous meeting, Councilmember Pat Backen had expressed desire to expand the resolution beyond just immigrants and refugees.

“I have a Muslim family that lives across the street from me, I have a bi-racial gay family that lives across the alley, and our neighbor won’t speak to them, I have three more gay couples down the block, we have a neighbor that’s transitioning. Do we come out with welcoming and inclusive resolutions or proclamations for each group?” Backen said. “I don’t know how we manage that. Pointing to one specific group could be seen as missing out on some people.”

Fox said that while the point was well-taken, she sees a need to provide a more narrow scope based on the most current climate.

“There are different times when certain people need a little more reassurance,” she said. “This is a time where the immigrant population needs a little more reassurance. They need to know where the city stands.”

Franzen asked whether a statement simply proclaiming that Robbinsdale does not participate in 287(g) would make immigrants feel safe enough, or if the committee feels that measure still doesn’t go far enough.

“Personally, I’d like to see a little punch in there. ‘We don’t, and we have no intention of it,’ however we can phrase that,” Fox replied.

The discussion was to continue at a work session Sept. 5.