BRUNSWICK, Maine — Residents of Mount Desert voted at their town meeting on Tuesday to declare the town a “sanctuary community,” and the adjacent town of Bar Harbor is poised to follow suit in June.
Leaders of the Mount Desert effort acknowledge the nonbinding declaration is a “statement of values” and not an ordinance with teeth. Still, they felt taking a stand was important — and other communities in Maine, including Brunswick, are considering similar steps.
Selma Sternlieb is among several members of Greater Brunswick Peaceworks who approached the town’s Human Rights Task Force in March to propose a declaration as “a moral and ethical stand against harassment and deportation of immigrants.”
“We remember a time when Soviet police invaded people’s homes in the middle of the night, sending the inhabitants to the Siberian gulag for the crime of writing a dissenting article,” Sternlieb, 80, wrote in a March 21 email to Brunswick Town Councilor Sarah Brayman, a member of the Human Rights Task Force. “We remember Nazi police taking people off the streets and sending them to concentration camps for the crime of being Jewish. Today in these United States a woman is deported to Mexico because she lacks some papers.”
As proposed by the group, the council would declare that Brunswick welcomes immigrants and refugees as “valued members of the community,” declare that it believes the federal government has no legal authority to require local enforcement of immigration laws, and declare that municipal staff should not ask about a resident’s immigration status when providing services.
Specifically, the proposed declaration reads, “As a sanctuary town, Brunswick employees will refuse any request from a state or federal agency that requires the identification of a resident’s immigration status.”
Sternlieb said last week that she’s not sure there are any undocumented immigrants in Brunswick, but feels the town should take a stand regardless.
“I thought it should be a statement that we feel strongly that people should not be harassed and that, if the police pick you up for driving drunk or whatever, they shouldn’t be asking your immigration status,” she said. “That’s not something the town should be concerned about. Local police should not be cooperating with the federal government about immigration — that’s not their responsibility.”
Brayman asked Brunswick Town Manager John Eldridge to research the potential repercussions if the town were to declare itself a sanctuary community — among them, whether or not such a declaration would jeopardize federal funding since President Donald Trump’s executive order directing federal grant funding to sanctuary cities be cut. The order was blocked last month by a San Francisco judge.
“We’re looking at what is required under federal statute for cooperation with federal authorities, and beyond that, what are the ramifications if the town should decide by policy not to cooperate,” Eldridge said.
Brayman acknowledged that the discussion in Brunswick was largely theoretical because few, if any, undocumented immigrants live in the community.
On Tuesday, the town of Mount Desert voted at its town meeting to support a nonbinding statement of values” declaring the community a sanctuary city, David Feldman, one of the organizers of the effort, said Friday.
“The nuts and bolts are still to be worked out,” Feldman said. “The legal advice we got was basically that there are no legal implications at all … there’s no standard definition of what it means to be a sanctuary city. We’d like to work toward an ordinance. I think our local police department already does what we’re asking them to do.”
But Feldman said that, unlike in Brunswick, ICE officials regularly visit Mount Desert and Bar Harbor, in part because cruise ships frequent Bar Harbor, and in part because Mount Desert Island typically attracts a large group of summer employees on H-2B visas — although he said this year, the number of international workers is a fraction of previous years.
Regardless of the declaration, Feldman said he doesn’t believe Mount Desert’s “statement of values” will affect federal funding because the executive order “is almost surely unconstitutional. The lawyers I’ve talked to — one from the ACLU — all feel pretty confident it would not be constitutional.”
South Portland city councilors recently opted not to pursue a proposal by one city councilor to become Maine’s first sanctuary city, in part due to fear of jeopardizing $9.1 million in federal funding if the Trump administration were to retaliate.
Brunswick Police Chief Richard Rizzo said he would wait to see exactly what is proposed before commenting, but added, “I think the law itself is pretty clear: Police departments need to cooperate with federal authorities.”
Brunswick’s police officers don’t have experience working with immigration officials. Rizzo said
Brunswick Police Cmdr. Mark Waltz said he didn’t remember any arrests by ICE in his 20 years with the department. But he said police don’t ask about someone’s immigration status unless there’s a specific reason. He said he’s concerned the discussion about sanctuary designation will get residents “worked up when something isn’t even happening” and cause relationships among the town council, residents and the police to deteriorate.
“The directives to your law enforcement officer aren’t the best way to make a political statement, because then you put officers in a position of having conflicting instructions — federal law tells you something, but [local] law tells you something different,” Waltz said. “You want your officers to have clear guidelines that tell them what to do, and not to have to choose to follow the federal or the community law. If someone’s got a political agenda, the best place to address that is with their federal representative.”
Brayman said she’ll wait for more information from Eldridge before weighing in on a declaration.
“I do think the town and state need to be more friendly to immigrants,” she said. “We need to be welcoming to people from all over. We have a demographic problem in this state and we need new people coming into our state. I believe that’s true for Brunswick too.”
Sternlieb said she plans to organize a “community conversation” about the sanctuary city declaration, to be held in September. She hopes to include town and police staff, as well as representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Sternlieb said the group approached the task force about a declaration in large part because “it’s a very terrifying time. Some of us are very, very scared. Of course, all the time I’ve lived, and I’ve lived 80 years, has been terrifying, but it’s more terrifying because Trump is so completely a loose cannon. You can’t tell what he could do.”