ORLEANS — Roderick MacDonald, a Presbyterian minister, has been thinking a good deal about a story that speaks to the need to support the rights of immigrants.
Nearing retirement, he visited a member of his off-Cape congregation and learned that the woman's sister had been picked up by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and detained in the Suffolk County House of Correction. Sixteen years before, when the sister had crossed the Texas border and been picked up, she had signed a paper that she thought was an agreement to let her stay in the county; in fact, it was an order to show up in court, but there was no one to provide a Portuguese translation. So, MacDonald said, “she spent 16 years in this country, living in Somerville, working with regular customers whose houses she cleaned, and paying taxes.” Then, after a long spell in detention, she was deported back to Brazil.
“It did seem rather cruel after that amount of time and contribution to our society,” MacDonald said.
With a new administration seeming to make less of a distinction between deporting criminals living here illegally and sending back those who have made a positive contribution to their communities for years, MacDonald, a Brewster resident, joined others from the Lower and Outer Cape to form the Cape Cod Coalition for Safe Communities. The group is an outgrowth of the justice committee of the Federated Church of Orleans and the Am HaYam Jewish fellowship; regular meetings are held at Federated.
“We believe this is a time of a lot of stress and a lot of fear as the nation is undergoing cataclysmic changes under the new administration,” said MacDonald. “There are neighbors living in real fear that they could leave their home one day and be picked up and deported by ICE.”
With the agency's expanded mandate, he said, “we know that across the county people who are guilty of perhaps nothing more than using a false Social Security number to get work are being picked up alongside killers and drug dealers.”
Among those targeted, MacDonald said, “are likely people who have lived here a long time. They work because they want to make better lives, like all of us. Many if not most pay taxes. We know how much on the Cape we rely on immigrants for our economy, our service industry, restaurants, landscaping, construction, health care. We have a deep concern for these people and the fact that there have begun to be some ICE arrests (here).”
The Cape Cod Coalition for Safe Communities states opposition “on both moral and political grounds (to) policies which seek to identify, detain and deport persons who are not criminals but have lived, worked, raised families and paid taxes, contributing to the lifeblood of our communities. We remember and embrace the truth that in the United States, unless part of the indigenous population, we all were immigrants no matter how many generations ago.”
Over the past months, Coalition members have been having conversations with selectmen, town administrators, and police chiefs in their towns. From that effort have come warrant articles in some communities asking voters to reaffirm their opposition to local police aiding deportation efforts.
“We quickly discovered that many if not most Cape towns back in 2003, 2004 passed resolutions in response to the Patriot Act surveilling us all,” MacDonald said. “There was a uniform resolution passed for protection of civil liberties by many towns. A provision clearly states that local officials should not enforce federal immigration laws. We learned that many if not all of the police departments on the Cape are basically following this practice, not functioning as a pseudo arm of ICE, and not investigating persons' documentation status except in case of a serious crime being committed.”
Asking voters to reaffirm this policy “makes for safer communities,” said MacDonald. “When persons are afraid of their local police, they will be afraid to come forward to report crimes, to ask for help in cases of abuse, to serve as a witness. Lots of our local police are really in support of this.”
The 10th Amendment, according to MacDonald, guarantees the separation of local and federal powers. “Federal authorities can't coerce or commandeer local law enforcement to be an arm of what is their responsibility to do,” he said.
The towns' political leaders have responded in varied ways. MacDonald said Brewster and Wellfleet's selectmen gave unanimous approval to placing an article on their annual town meeting warrants. After extensive conversation with selectmen and the chief of police in Orleans, he said, members decided not to move forward with the board and instead sought to put an article on the warrant by petition.
MacDonald said he believes there is a similar petition going forward in Harwich, but noted that the group's members from Chatham have not had an “encouraging” response from town officials. “We're not looking to stir up a lot of conflict in towns as we do this,” he said. “In each town, people are trying to proceed judiciously.”
Also in the Coalition's mission statement is a call to advocacy for just immigration policies and support for sanctuary programs that may be created by local houses of worship and others.
“We're tying to learn more and tell the stories of some of these folks,” MacDonald said. “We feel that this is not the way Cape Codders, or Americans, want to think of themselves or their society.”
MacDonald invited those interested to go to the group's Facebook page (www.facebook.com/CapeCodCoalitionForSafeCommunities) or send an e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org).
“We believe that what we're doing is both not radical and very lawful according to our nation's laws and our constitution,” said MacDonald. “We very much believe that in these times it's especially important to uphold what we see as the best of our American values – freedom and opportunity for everybody, and caring for the most vulnerable. Those things matter very much.”