Will East Lansing Become a Sanctuary City?

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Dustin DuFort Petty for ELi

MSU students discuss why E.L. should be a sanctuary city during a Nov. 13, 2022, meeting with East Lansing’s Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Elaine Hardy and Human Rights Commission Vice Chair Karen Hoene.

The East Lansing Human Rights Commission (HRC) unanimously approved a resolution at its Monday night meeting designating East Lansing as a sanctuary city. Before it can take effect, City Council must endorse the idea. The measure now goes to the council, which could vote on the resolution as soon as its Dec. 6 meeting.

A sanctuary city is typically defined as one that protects its residents against retribution based on their immigration status.

The power behind the movement has largely come from undergraduate students from Michigan State University. 

Several student leaders who spoke Monday in favor of the resolution also attended a Sunday afternoon “Coffee & Conversation” HRC session at Hooked, 3142 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing. The two-hour gathering at the recently-opened bookstore/coffee shop/wine bar revolved around the idea of East Lansing becoming a sanctuary city.

Karen Hoene, HRC vice chair, kicked off the conversation thanking MSU students for leading the drive to adopt the sanctuary city resolution.

Dustin DuFort Petty for ELI

East Lansing’s Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Elaine Hardy listens as Human Rights Commission Vice Chair Karen Hoene leads discussion about E.L. becoming designated a sanctuary city.

MSU students primarily represented two groups, the Associated Students of MSU (ASMSU), the student government of the university, and dreaMSU, a registered student organization working for protections for undocumented students studying at MSU. 

Jack Behan is a Community Liaison with ASMSU studying history and political science. His position charges him to engage with local governments to advocate for students. It is his hope the university will eventually become a sanctuary campus, noting that East Lansing should make the first move.

“Faculty and those at the university don’t want to step too far into it until the city does first,” he said.

Behan has also reached out to U.S. Senator Gary Peters for whom he previously served as a legislative intern. He shared that Peters believes it is the right of each community to determine whether they want to be a sanctuary city and that those places should not fear repercussions from the federal government.

Kalamazoo is currently Michigan’s only sanctuary city. Ann Arbor, Lansing and Detroit are classified as welcoming cities, a designation that does not indicate a city’s refusal to cooperate with federal and state immigration officials.

Hoene shared that research shows sanctuary cities do not become more dangerous, contrary to popular misconception. 

“When people are undocumented, they are less likely to report crimes,” she said. “It also affects domestic violence reporting. If you’re undocumented, you’re not going to seek out police to help when there’s a threat of ICE [Immigration and Customs Engagement].”

Harsna Chahal is Health, Safety, Wellness Director of ASMSU and a senior studying neuroscience at the university. She believes a sanctuary city designation will help undocumented individuals seek out healthcare.

Dustin DuFort Petty

MSU students participate in the sanctuary city discussion on Nov. 13, 2022, at Hooked.

“If this is a safe place,” she said, “people can go to a doctor. Declaring a sanctuary city opens up the opportunity for people to see doctors, go to the hospital, get vaccines, visit the dentist. Protected people can experience healthier situations.”

This is not the first time East Lansing has flirted with becoming a sanctuary city. 

In 2017, when then-President Donald Trump worked to halt immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, the city council unanimously approved a resolution calling East Lansing a “safe haven,” stopping short of declaring it a sanctuary city. There was concern at the time that doing so would threaten federal funds to the city given Trump’s remarks about how he wanted to see sanctuary cities treated.

At the Sunday dialogue, Elaine Hardy, East Lansing’s Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, highlighted the significant differences between the safe haven East Lansing is and the sanctuary city it may become.

“The resolution says that East Lansing won’t participate with federal entities seeking undocumented people,” she said.

Hardy said East Lansing law enforcement hasn’t weighed in on the resolution.

ELi reached out to Captain Chad Pride and Chief Kim Johnson of the East Lansing Police Department for comment on the resolution, but they did not respond by time of publication.

At Monday night’s HRC meeting, Raquel Acosta, social relations and policy major and President of dreaMSU, sought to put the issue in perspective.

“MSU has 10,000 international students from almost 140 countries,” she said. “Two-thirds of undocumented immigrants are students who overstay their visas. But undocumented folks add $324.5 million dollars to out local economy.

“I ask, encourage and empower this council to adopt this resolution,” she said.

When asked by someone in the public audience about the meeting date, Mayor Ron Bacon, City Council’s liaison to the Human Rights Commission, indicated he expected the council would consider the issue at its Dec. 6 meeting.

Those assembled at the HRC meeting were visibly excited and optimistic about the future of the resolution.

“I feel like implementing this will be the first step in the right direction,” Behan said. “East Lansing can be a beacon of hope.”

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