East Lansing Info (ELi) runs a service called Ask ELi to Investigate, which works to get readers’ news-related questions answered. A reader recently sent in this question:
“Now that East Lansing considers itself a sanctuary city, do they have a plan in place should the Biden administration send immigrants to East Lansing? Do they have a contract with the Marriott or Graduate hotels to house them since East Lansing doesn’t have shelters, or would they push them off on other cities?”
We passed this question on to Interim City Manager Randy Talifarro. The short answer is that, four months after Council’s vote, there is no specific plan and Talifarro said, if necessary, it will be treated as an emergency. Talifarro is the former fire chief of Lansing and East Lansing, which means he has a professional background in emergency management.
“The city does not have a specific plan to deal with this scenario,” Talifarro wrote by email on May 10. “We would work with agencies and local/state resources that are accustomed to managing emergency housing needs (i.e., Red Cross, Community Shelters, etc.). The city would treat this much like we would typical emergency events until a long-term plan was developed.”
A split vote four months ago led to the declaration.
The City Council voted on Jan. 10, 2023, to declare East Lansing a “sanctuary city,” with Mayor Ron Bacon, Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg, and Councilmember Dana Watson voting in favor and Councilmember George Brookover voting against.
There were only four members on Council at the time, because Noel Garcia was not named to replace Councilmember Lisa Babcock until one week later. Garcia’s appointment occurred at the same meeting where Council voted to end the contract with City Manager George Lahanas and hire Talifarro as the interim city manager.
When Brookover voted against, he said he was doing so because the Sanctuary City resolution offered no protections that didn’t already exist and was likely to make East Lansing a political target unnecessarily. Brookover expressed his desire that all international visitors and residents feel welcome in East Lansing. But, he said, the city is already welcoming and has already been taking the measures compelled by the resolution.
“I look at the actual operative provisions of this [sanctuary city] resolution compared to the [City of East Lansing’s] 2017 [‘safe haven’] resolution, as far as I can tell, in terms of the directives to our law enforcement agencies, they’re exactly the same,” Brookover, an attorney, said just before the vote. “We haven’t cooperated with immigration authorities since 2017 and I suspect we didn’t cooperate with them before that.”
As ELi reported in January, Brookover alluded to his Democratic Party affiliation while saying that sometimes it is smarter politically to do nothing.
But Bacon said he wanted to send a clear message.
“I do want to send out the clarifying-call that we are that shining city on the hill,” Bacon said at the time of the vote. “That’s just who we are and that’s who we’re going to be moving forward.”
Bacon also expressed the desire to have a plan in place should a sudden influx occur.
“I’m not for symbolism, but I am for calls to action,” he said. “I consider this a call to action.
“It’s a wonderful thing you’re throwing out here, but it’s actually a call to work,” he said, speaking to the Michigan State University students in attendance who pressed Council for the Sanctuary City measure. “People-movement is going to be the crisis of your time.”
What has happened since the vote?
Although many MSU students spoke in favor of the sanctuary city vote, since the vote, the University Student Commission has not taken specific action to help prepare for a sudden influx, according to published minutes of that commission’s meetings.
The Human Rights Commission (HRC), which brought forth the measure to Council, has had some related discussions.
According to approved minutes of the Feb. 13 HRC meeting, Commissioner Karen Hoene “suggested inviting someone from the refugee center to come speak about East Lansing becoming a sanctuary city and what that looks like moving forward. Along with that, coming up with actionable ideas and plans for assisting refugees or a resource list for them.”
At the next month’s meeting, on March 13, “Hoene reminded that Mayor Bacon had stated upon the resolution for East Lansing to become a sanctuary city, that this would not just be symbolic but have action behind it,” according to published minutes. “Hoene advised she has been in contact with a member of the Ann Arbor HRC who helped create a county issued ID card for undocumented residents and that she is open to coming and talking to the East Lansing HRC about the process. [East Lansing Human Rights Commissioner Thasin] Sardar suggested that if we have her come, we could invite some local county commissioners to join the conversation.
“Hoene also suggested,” according to the minutes, “finding safe ways to reach out to undocumented community members and ask them what support looks like for them.”
At that March meeting, Hoene told her colleagues she wanted to be “proactive and not just reactive.” She said she wanted to see an organized team with a plan and said she thought it made sense to collaborate with interested parties from Michigan State University’s College of Law.
At the April HRC meeting, Hoene again brought up the matter, saying she would reach out to Ingham County and Washtenaw County Commissioners to discuss an ID program for undocumented people.
As ELi reported, the HRC’s May meeting included a discussion of an ID card system.
Council has had no further discussion since the sanctuary city resolution was passed. ELi contacted Bacon on the same date we contacted Talifarro – May 10 – to ask if there is a plan. Bacon did not respond.
At the Jan. 10 meeting where the vote took place, Bacon seemed to express an expectation that groups other than Council would take up the matter. Following the vote, Bacon told those present and concerned to “Get to work,” adding, “there’s work to do.”
“The reality is, if we were faced with an influx of individuals who might fit this category, I think we would then morally have a responsibility to take care of them,” he also said at the Jan. 10 meeting. “We don’t have the resources to take care of them, and I would feel pretty bad about that.”
Update, May 17, 10:45 a.m.:
Kit Carlson, Rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in East Lansing, wrote in response to this column to say, “The Interfaith Clergy Association [of Greater Lansing] has been committed to supporting and welcoming refugees and immigrants. We founded the All Faith Alliance for Refugees, a multi faith group that specifically works with the local refugee services groups to support them.
“I know that the faith communities in East Lansing would rise up to help address the needs of a sudden influx of immigrants.” She cited the response of churches in Martha’s Vineyard to a sudden influx as exemplary.
“I hope you all remember that there is a real resource in East Lansing in the form of the faith community, and that we are here, and called by the various tenets of our various faiths to welcome the stranger,” she said. “We are here and willing to serve.”