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Birmingham City Council passes sanctuary city resolution

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By Monique Jones

The Birmingham Times

Carlos Chaverst of the Birmingham chapter of the National Action Network speaks to the press during an impromptu press conference after the City Council passes the resolution to declare Birmingham a sanctuary city. (Monique Jones, The Birmingham Times)
Carlos Chaverst of the Birmingham chapter of the National Action Network speaks to the press during an impromptu press conference after the City Council passes the resolution to declare Birmingham a sanctuary city. (Monique Jones, The Birmingham Times)

The Birmingham City Council on Tuesday unanimously passed a resolution declaring Birmingham a sanctuary city which would protect citizens regardless of immigration status.

The resolution was approved by all nine members of the council and met with a standing ovation by a diverse group of people crowded into the City Council chambers on the third floor in City Hall.

The council will next draft official legislation designating Birmingham as a sanctuary which means the city will adopt policies to limit the federal government’s power in regards to immigration.

The resolution states that Birmingham “strives to be a community free of hostilities and aggressions and uphold the commitment to be a community free of prejudice, bigotry and hate.”

It’s unclear whether the carries the weight of law since “sanctuary city” status is not allowed under Alabama law. Still, supporters were heartened by the resolution.

“Today is a big day,” said Sarai Portillo, executive director of the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice (ACIJ). “Today we claim victory . . . we congratulate the city of Birmingham for making a bold step towards justice and to protect [our] community.”

City Council President Johnathan Austin sponsored the resolution which came on the heels of Sunday’s protest at the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport where dozens of people rallied in opposition of President Donald Trump’s immigration ban.

“The moment that moved us was the detainment of individuals that were properly documented to come…into this country,” said Frank Matthews, founder of the Outcast Voters League. “We’re glad that issue resonated so we can speak to these other issues that galvanized us at the airport.”

The unanimous vote didn’t come without some fireworks, including those in the crowded council chambers who interrupted councilmembers as they discussed the resolution.

Councilor Kim Rafferty offered changes to the resolution was the target of some outbursts. “I believe that the city needs to take a stand. I believe in inclusion. I believe in sanctuary, I believe in a welcoming city,” she said. However, she added “I’m trying to make sure that the words on the piece of paper are not just words on a piece of paper, that [they] actually mean something.”

Rafferty suggested changing the word “sanctuary” to “freedom” but was rejected by her colleagues.

“All immigrants that are coming here are seeking freedom,” she said. However, removing “sanctuary” caused an outcry from many in the audience.

Councilor Valerie Abbott had some concerns. “We are a state that does not have home rule,” she said, citing that the city could face legal penalties for going against the federal government. “…The legislature has all the power. Basically, we have to follow state law.”

However, Attorney Freddy Rubio, who represents the council, said the resolution itself doesn’t put the city in legal jeopardy.

“This resolution…it doesn’t set any policy. It does set the spirit, the heart, the intent, the sentiment that this council and this city wants to have as it pertains to immigrants and people of all communities,” he said.

Austin and Councilmembers Jay Roberson and Steven Hoyt spoke in favor of the resolution.

“I’ve been moved today,” said Roberson. “… this has always been the Birmingham I wanted Birmingham to be. People from all walks of life [are] coming together for a cause …that’s what sanctuary is,” he said.

“Right now, I think today is about the people of Birmingham. …I’m not ashamed to say today, sitting here, that this has got to be a sanctuary city. I truly believe it should be,” he said.

Hoyt said, “When we start to dilute what really brings us together, the cultural and intellectual exchanges, then I think we’re doomed to fail. We can’t say we’re America and then somehow we take the sign down and it only pertains to certain [cultures].”

Austin said, “The city of Birmingham has a long and rich history of standing up in the face of adversity and it didn’t come by the elected officials back then; it came from the people . . . I believe that the people always speak with one voice and [what] I hear… is that we want see our city of Birmingham safe for everyone who comes here.”